Detractors of dubstep complain that the music is cold, mechanical and sterile. Yet the capacity audience of almost 3,000 at the Midland Theatre on Thursday was anything but lifeless. Few audiences in recent memory have demonstrated more vitality than the revelers who undulated in unison to Bassnectar.
The qualities that critics of dubstep decry — vacant tones, robotic beats and the absence of any semblance of subtlety — elicited a joyous response during the electronic dance music star’s 130-minute appearance. The youthful composition of the audience played a major role in the exuberantly giddy tenor of the evening. Festive costumes, shameless flirting and an old-fashioned confetti drop caused the concert to resemble a high school dance. Most school gymnasiums, however, don’t feature world-class sound systems or stunning visual displays.
Even with minimal unintentional distortion, the visceral force of the extreme volume of the concert’s bass reproduction felt capable of loosening molars, rearranging internal organs and clearing sinuses. The balcony of the Midland visibly swayed during popular Bassnectar selections like “The Matrix.” Screens featured psychedelic images that enhanced each song. Banks of colorful search lights regularly searched the theater as if it was a cheerful penitentiary.
Bassnectar, the stage name of San Francisco-based Lorin Ashton, seemed to keep himself busy poking at various devices, but it was impossible to discern exactly how much of the sound the DJ was spontaneously manipulating. It’s possible that he did nothing more than press a start button as he opened his set with “Wildstyle Method.” Ashton’s ability to cheerlead isn’t in doubt. Fans became even more delirious when he whipped his long hair and enthusiastically pumped his arms.
While Ashton has issued several memorable recordings in the past decade, he also intriguingly recontextualizes music made familiar by other artists. The punk rock of Pennywise, a wacky rap by Ol’ Dirty Bastard and a refrain associated with the Italian film composer Ennio Morricone were among the iconic pop culture references embedded in Ashton’s thick beats. Not unlike Andy Warhol’s images of soup cans, much of Ashton’s music can be interpreted as either a bold artistic statement or as a daring con.
It’s unlikely that many fans gave the matter much thought. Dubstep makes few intellectual demands of its listeners and the concert’s overwhelmingly stimulating sensory experience negated the possibility of contemplation. Besides, all that mattered Thursday was the profound boom of the bass.