When Brit electronica subverts Underworld kicked off their current North American tour at The Joint in Las Vegas on Thursday night it was a full-body experience, like taking temporary residence inside a subwoofer as outsized and over-the-top as the city in which it all went down. Thick clouds of dry ice, sudden flashes of light, concussive, knock-you-on-your-heels rhythms created the deliriously disorienting effect of a disco war zone.
The man at the center of it all, Underworld's de facto frontman and singer Karl Hyde, certainly carried himself like the most fab of field sergeants, donning a sparkly sport coat that could have been fashioned from an imploded disco ball and dancing himself dizzy. Seriously, dude's pelvis earned overtime pay on this night.
"I want to give you everything, I want to give you energy," Hyde sang appropriately enough on dance-floor heart attack "Cowgirl," a triple shot of adrenaline and cresting synth lines that was an early highlight of the group's feverish two-hour set.
Live, Underworld is a wholly different beast than the techno animal, unfurling extended romps through their back catalog that make the album versions feel like Cliff's Notes. Their repertoire is as malleable as wet taffy, perpetually taking on new shapes, like cloud patterns in the face of gale-force winds, and they stretch most every tune far past its initial recording time.
With Hyde's hypnotic vocals and mantra-like lyrics buttressed by a throbbing harmonic drone, Underworld employ repetition as a battering ram to weaken your defenses before storming the gates with arms-in-the-air melodies. Combined with retina-blasting visuals projected on a series of inflatable tubes at the back of the stage, it created an equally entrancing and jarring effect.
Surveying the last decade-and-a-half of their career, from the whiplash beats of "Dirty Epic" off of 1993's inventive Dubnobasswithmyheadman to the apocalyptic bass bombs that comprised a show-ending "Boy, Boy, Boy" from their most recent disc, 2007's Oblivion With Bells, the group seldom seemed to come up for air. The fan favorites came fast and furious -- songs like "Two Months Off," "King of Snakes," and "Push Upstairs" were belted out with such force, it was as if they were fired from a cannon.
Before long, the room began to reek of B.O. and spilt beer, but Hyde didn't mind. "This is a great return to America," Hyde beamed. The crowd responded in kind, going after the giant white balloons hurled from the stage during their best-known jam, "Born Slippy," like kids chasing bubbles.
"This is my beautiful dream," Hyde had sung earlier, at the onset of the show, refusing to be awakened, if only for a night.