Stepho, Ginny, Sam, Megan, Jonah and myself met at my place on September 9 in preparation to see Underworld live at the Hollywood Bowl. The odious Paul Oakenfold was to open, so we took our time in getting there, making sure to arrive just after the disgraced DJ finished his set and thus protecting our delicate aural passages from his fierce horribleness.
I’d seen Underworld five or six times previous, but the Hollywood Bowl gig was particularly intriguing. Known for their epic, high-energy performances, Underworld was routinely praised as one of the best live acts of the ’90s. If you’re not familiar with the Hollywood Bowl, imagine the lengths of two football fields sort of wrapped in a curve, forming an enormous amphitheater. Originally designed for orchestras, you’re meant to sit on benches or in fancy boxes and not really dance much at all.
I expected a moodier, slower set — something along the lines of what the band’s actually wanted to do for years — and I was pleased to receive just such a performance. Underworld opened with “Luetin,” the best track off their last album, A Hundred Days Off. It’s a slow-building, darkly hypnotic track that set the mood for the first half the show, which included new Oblivion With Bells songs “Crocodile,” “Beautiful Burnout” and “Glam Bucket.” All of them are top tracks, with “Glam Bucket,” in particular, being the most worthy addition to Underworld’s intimidating legacy of live anthems.
As regular readers of this blog already know, I lack the command of language needed to describe for you just how fucking gorgeous this song is. As such, I’ve decided to break innumerable copyright laws and let you hear “Glam Bucket” for yourself. Just don’t tell anybody.
Following “Glam Bucket” and a bit of improvisation and elements of “Lenny Penne,” Underworld crashed into a second hour full of hits including “Cowgirl,” “Born Slippy NUXX,” and “Two Months Off,” a song I hate on A Hundred Days Off but usually enjoy live.
It’s interesting. Universally agreed to be their weakest album, A Hundred Days Off was rather well represented at the Hollywood Bowl performance. Besides “Luetin” and “Two Months Off,” Underworld also played a version of “Mo Move,” complete with apocalyptic tribal drum breakdown in the middle. Previous “Mo Move” performances on previous tours included lyrics from “Mmm…Skyscraper, I Love You” or “River of Bass” thrown in for added hyphocity, but this version was all instrumental, which worked better than the vocal album version. I think it’s really impressive how the band have continued to develop concepts from an album a lot of people quite vocally disliked and turn them into something which the crowd doesn’t just enjoy, but indeed, something they genuinely desire. In that respect, I suppose A Hundred Days Off is kind of like Daft Punk’s Human After All, another album nobody liked until it was retooled for maximum christ-raping intensity.
I was a little disappointed that Underworld didn’t play more of the internet-only, live-only tracks they’ve been performing at various festivals and one-offs around the world; songs like “You Do Scribble” and “JAL To Tokyo.” These tracks are completely insane, largely drum ‘n bass numbers and thusly not danceable in any practical way, so they’d have worked nicely in the Hollywood Bowl.
Throughout the evening, I moved up and down our row to “vibe” with each of my friends for a song or two. This was really fun, especially because Underworld is a band that I’ve basically forced into everyone’s brains over the last few years. Sam and Ginny were already fans, but that Jonah, Stepho and Megan enjoyed the show so much was hugely vindicating. I mean, I was so evangelical about Underworld, I promised friends that when the band finally returned to LA, I would buy their tickets and happily eat the cost if they could truthfully state they didn’t think it was awesome.
I brought with me a bottle of exquisite and absurdly priced champagne, given to me for my birthday by friend Timo, who is this fantastic German fellow who refuses to buy clothes anywhere in the US but in New York. I love him a lot. We finished off that bottle as well as another, cheaper one we’d brought, so Stepho and Ginny volunteered to run to the Hollywood Bowl’s booze kiosk and buy more (it’s a brilliant fucking venue, I tell you). Underworld launched into NUXX with a furious, driving beat and I imagined the girls dashing up the hill and back to our seats as fast as possible, which it turns out was exactly what they did. We popped the cork and drank a third bottle of champagne while the band finished off “King of Snake” and concluded the show with the sublime “Jumbo.”
As expected, a fabulous show. The full setlist (as best I’ve been able to determine):
02. Ambient improvisation.
05. Juanita (Very slow, dark version — excellent)
07. Beautiful Burnout
08. Glam Bucket
09. Lenny Penne/Improv
11. Two Months Off
12. Mo Move
13. Small Conker and a Twix
14. Born Slippy NUXX
15. King of Snake
16. Jumbo (Encore)
The fun didn’t stop there, though. Just a few days later, I boarded an aeroplane for New York City to see Underworld again, this time in Central Park. That’s just how I roll.
The Central Park show was one of the most incredible nights of my life. Certainly, the music was tip top, but a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was for the first time seeing my favorite band with my oldest friend, Kendall. He and I have been friends since we were sixth grade Boy Scouts in Singapore, and we’ve been devoted Underworld fans for what has to be more than a decade now. Circumstances were such that Central Park was Kendall’s first Underworld show, so the experience was just all kinds of gushy sentimentalism.
This Central Park venue, which I think is called the Rumsey Playfield (?), is the perfect environment for live electronic music. It’s outdoors, only about as large as a couple of basketball courts, so you can’t really get too far away from the stage even if you tried, and equipped with numerous beer and Red Bull kiosks. Also, portable toilets.
The Centeral Park show was completely different than the Hollywood Bowl performance, despite actually including many of the same songs. The energy of the crowd was upbeat and infectious. Everybody wanted to dance, and everybody was ready to get crazy. After a forgettable set by DJ James Holden, Underworld took the stage and opened once again with “Luetin.” The crowd dug the song but desired BEATS, and Underworld took their cue and dropped the immortal “Dark Train,” which many of you may remember from the “baby-on-the-ceiling” sequence in Trainspotting.
It was an amazing, amazing version, and really brought Kendall and I back to the old days. The rhythm bits played for ages, mixing in bits of live-only jam “Shake That Higher” and building up to a crescendo that never came — fake out! All the sound fell out for a very tense moment before the famous “Dark Train” keyboard riff filled the space, and people just freaked the fuck out.
As it’s the new single, the band of course played “Crocodile,” which the crowd seemed to love despite its mid-tempo nature. But with that out of the way, Underworld turned the hyphocity up to level HYPH0C17Y. They played many of their most intense, driving songs, and really intricate and expansive versions, too.
See for yourself:
02. Dark Train/Shake That Higher
04. Pearls Girl (so insane, one of the most insane songs around)
06. Beautiful Burnout
07. Two Months Off
08. Rowla (One of the hyphiest songs ever made by anybody)
09. 5 Foot 5
10. Glam Bucket (Somehow even more awesome than in Hollywood)
12. Rez/Cowgirl (Brilliant version)
13. Small Conker and a Twix
14. Born Slippy NUXX (Naturally)
15. King of Snake
16. Jumbo (encore)
The crowd was united as one beast of beats, with everybody cheering at precisely the same moments, whenever new layers were introduced, whenever transitions occurred and whenever breakdowns broke down. I don’t think we stopped jumping up and down once the whole time, unless you count the numerous times we stopped jumping up and down to exchange money for goods and, occasionally, services. Throughout the evening I called and txt’d more or less everyone I know with a mobile phone, and received all kinds of congratulatory and envious txts in return. I wish I still had them, it was glorious.
Following the show, we all wandered Central Park and, later, some of Manhattan in a post-Underworld trance. We jumped from bar to bar, saying hello to friends like Brendan & Mariah, and just having a generally wonderful night.