Dance Act SBTRKT Makes Shaky U.S. Live Debut

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SBTRKT: Sampha (left) and Aaron Jerome / Photo by Kyle Dean Reinford
WRITTEN BY
Peter Gaston

Accolades have been adding up for SBTRKT, the recording moniker of London-based DJ/producer Aaron Jerome. SBTRKT's self-titled debut album, out last month, could be the 2011 equivalent of the xx's 2009 breakout effort, a sexy but dark, beat driven collection that permeates late-night parties all summer long. Chart-topping rapper Drake has touted the project's brilliance, and even popped up onstage to rap during Jerome's DJ set in Toronto last week. But as with loads of electronic acts, the transition from studio wizardry and DJ nights to some form of "live" performance isn't an easy one, and that was the case for SBTRKT in New York City this weekend.

It was SBTRKT's first such gig in the States, and lines stretched around the block in both directions outside the jam-packed courtyard of PS1, the Museum of Modern Art's outer-borough outpost in Queens. And while the venue's long-running weekly Saturday party called the Warm Up has a big built-in following, the buzz for SBTRKT's debut made it an even hotter ticket.

But when Jerome and his vocalist-keyboardist pal Sampha emerged onstage, each hiding behind cannibal-esque tribal masks, things got off to a rough start. Jerome chose to spend about half the set behind a drum kit, and while his pounding was enthusiastic, he's clearly got no training on the instrument. He frequently lost track of his own laptop-driven backing beats, undermining the punch of songs like "Hold On," a silky, slow-building gem whose minimalist beats work just fine underneath Sampha's catchy hooks without needless, out of time cymbal bashing. Same with "Something Goes Right," whose staccato breakbeats were ruined by Jerome's attempts to bash the skins.

In stark contrast was "Living Like I Do," a skippy burst of dubstep-lite, which found Jerome ditching the live percussion to fiddle with samplers and twiddle knobs, which finally got the crowd moving, with whistles popping and hands raising when he dropped the beat.

Impossible to tarnish: "Wildfire," SBTRKT's best known song to date, whose album version features Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano on lead vocals, and which received a remix treatment by Drake. Club kids already knew the words, and by summer's end, it's likely you will too, as it'll be the soundtrack to innumerable bump n' grind sessions on dancefloors worldwide. Its throbbing bassline and warbly synth tones would make Missy Elliott proud.

Yet despite its pre-recorded vocals and beats, "Wildfire" was the show's most lively moment, with the warmest reception, proof positive that you don't have to play an instrument to rock a party. Sometimes, the best addition is SBTRKT-shun.

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