The trouble with playing nice

“I have a simple question: Is everybody having a nice time?” Well, yeah, Moby, we are, and thanks for asking.

See, Moby’s the kind of nonrock star who doesn’t say stuff like, “Helllloooo Deeeeetroitttt!” or ask women to bare their chests. He queries the heaving throng at DTE if we are having a nice time. And I guess we are. Moby’s Area:2 festival is, for lack of a better word, nice. Pleasant, even — as dry and sunny as the humidityless sky that greets the daylong program of thinking-person’s rock — but-not-the-drunk-and-stupid-kind.

First, we are treated to the earnest posi-pop-punk of Ireland’s Ash, bashing time-honored chord progressions like sweaty young Rock Inc. interns enduring the entry level find-our-seats opening slot on the main stage. For comic relief we get the change-up of Busta Rhymes throwin’ some dick into the party with his set of radio-hit bling-bling rap.

Over in the Playstation Dance Tent we get the finest party lineup money can buy with the loud and surly low-end bass of Pennsylvania’s Dieselboy, one of the few American drum and bass DJs to reach headliner status in the U.K. Of course, at 2:30 in the afternoon, Dieselboy isn’t headlining much — more like providing background music for the kids thumbing away maniacally at the PlayStation arcade at the other end of the tent. Still, it’s ground-breaking that a DJ who three years ago was spinning nitrous-fueled raves in some east-side ghetto is now being acknowledged, embraced even, by a major concert promotion.

The DJ tent feels more like a party than last year’s DJ sideshow vibe, a notion forwarded by the midafternoon set by Australia’s Avalanches. The duo’s Andy Kaufman-style, genre-mashing DJ seems like some whippet-giggily cousin to Moby’s penchant for funking up gospel samples and stringing out blues warbles.

The Avalanches mix skinny-tie and spiky-hair fare such as The Police’s “I Can’t Stand Losing You” with the icy, epic beauty of “Jaguar” by Detroit’s own DJ Rolando of underground techno stalwart’s Underground Resistance. I’m not sure what point they are making, but it’s too retardedly fun to think about how clever and cheeky it is for Underground Resistance and Sting to be hanging tough in the speakers — techno purists be damned and tipsy Bowie fans be moved to throwing down like drunk receptionists at the office holiday party.

Outside the tent, kids stop to check out the Snapple-sponsored Elements extreme mountain boarding demo (replete with DJ booth). The board riders — strapped to oversized skateboards with off-road inflatable tires — are the new carnies, barnstorming overhead, defying gravity and death (or at least, as one rider sidelined with his arm in a sling reminds us, the threat of broken limbs).

In the otherwise genteel, nice festival setting, the mountain boarding represents the only vestige of real rock ’n’ roll danger here. Particularly amid the eerily polite Apple product demonstrations (Ipod for Windows, yo!) and concourse display of a new VW microbus — which, in its 2002 version, just seems too sensible to paint up with peace signs and eco-savvy bumper stickers.

Yet it’s the danger-zoo vibe created by the mountain board expo that provides a high enough energy level around which a lowest common denominator can take shape. Picture Girls Gone Wild types grinding to DJ spun LL Cool J and making requests for Abandoned Pools or Nelly. Or, in one girl’s case, “song 10 on the Eminem CD,” even though the DJ is clearly playing vinyl. For these people — Moby, schmoby — this is just another day in the sun.

But not for the Bowie fans. They are the most identifiable group at Area:2, the aging video store clerks in their Thin White Duke best, replete with Truman Capote brims and pasty blond hair. They are the classic rock faithful for whom every Bowie record since Let’s Dance is merely a speed bump en route to seeing the glampa hand over the Spiders From Mars licks to whichever Mick Ronson stand-in he has on tour.

And Bowie, for his part, does not disappoint. Compared to Moby’s gleefully awkward stage presence and too-frequent trips to the bongos (Moby: the Sheila E. of techno?), Bowie is the only performer of the day who appears comfortable in his own skin(s). He grinds out Low-era junk-dirges, a Pixies cover, some cheeky banter about his “Maryland accent” and a reference to Ann Arbor, even an angst-beat sing-along of “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Finally, for the faithful, “Ziggy Stardust.”

Bowie’s invocation of the ghost of rock seems almost indulgent amid this lineup, which goes lengths to explain why his set is so satisfying.

There are craggy, spiky, free-falling emotions waiting to be expressed, and Moby’s set is proof of that. He puts it to us not three songs into his set: “Do you know how satisfying it is to stand up here with an electric guitar and make this sound?” He answers with some Iron Maiden licks, only half-joking. In his self-effacing way, Moby knows there’s something about a huge outdoor concert on a nice summer night that wants something a little stronger than wistful Sunday afternoon sound-track jams. Moby’s id-ish yelps and twitchy screams during his riff-heavy take on the “James Bond Theme” reveal an energy — call it rock spectacle, cliché, indulgence, whatever — that the crowd really wants.

No matter how it’s packaged — alternative, nice — we want to unwrap it to find the raw nerve.

That’s what DJ Carl Cox is doing over in the dance tent, taking the techno palette of drums, rumbling bass lines and wiry high frequencies and bringing them into a monumental, kinetic relief, full of its own crags, spikes and free falls.

Maybe Ash has the best idea of all. Get the set out of the way early. Then, during Moby’s set, sneak onto the nearby Pine Knob ski hills to find some real danger, leaving the Mobester with his wistful songs and a guitar aching to be louder, harder and faster.

See, Area:2, taking a page from European festival circuit, diffuses the core “rock, duuuude” fanaticism of Ozzfest and skims the radio dial with more than a few pauses on public radio. The show — as evidenced in Moby’s set — isn’t about hoisting lighters skyward as much as it is about people browsing in, say, the air-conditioned hum of the import magazine rack at Borders.

But it all seems so tame compared to Lollapalooza of yore, which, of course, was Moby’s inspiration for Area in the first place. Lollapalooza was alternative culture circa ’94, it’s pulse still racing with rock’s spiky EKG. Area:2’s EKG is more like a long rolling sine wave, genteel and nice as the new VW bug. No wonder the kids ask for Abandoned Pools, Nelly and Eminem.

Hobey "Leader of the New School" Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Write him c/o this paper or via e-mail at [email protected]
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