In the tradition of Burial, MF Doom and—hey, why not?—Thomas Pynchon, London’s SBTRKT is an artistic man of mystery. Or at least he used to be. Also known as Aaron Jerome, the Kenyan-born producer made waves in the bass music scene in 2009 by releasing a couple of future garage 12″s completely anonymously. The likes of x-step tastemaker Mary Anne Hobbs got on board early, and the hype-machine was no doubt fueled in part by SBTRKT’s insistence on wearing brightly colored African masks both on stage and in photographs. 2012’s SBTRKT is a bit of a different story. His debut eponymous full-length, released last year via Young Turks, was named an album of the year by many, and perhaps as a result, a series of not-so-reticent interviews started appearing on the Web, and the producer began covering less and less of his face.
Although it certainly takes a measure of courage to try to get big anonymously, Jerome, who took the stage at a sold-out Webster Hall last night, radiated confidence unveiled. He was originally booked alongside another mysterious act, the experimental blues howler Willis Earl Beal, but the Chicagoan had to bow out on doctor’s orders. Instead, he had some support from Sepalcure, an electronic duo from Brooklyn. Sepalcure’s set, which drew mainly from its self-titled LP of intoxicating two-step-meets-house-meets-Detroit techno, was pretty excellent, offering refined and contorted takes on the already polished tracks from the album. Unfortunately, the pair seemed to be having more fun on stage than the rest of the audience members (no one around me had heard of them) who were clearly anxious for the headliner to take the stage. Nonetheless, Sepalcure did manage to get some feet moving by the end of the set.
Just before SBTRKT began to play, a huge scrim patterned with a stylized version of one of the artist’s masks unfurled in front of the stage. As a shroud, it seemed to fit in with SBTRKT’s penchant for obscurity; but once the banner tumbled to the ground, it was clear that restraint was no longer a key component to his act. Instead of the traditional table of laptop and various periphery to hide behind, Jerome’s equipment consisted of a cyborg drumkit, keyboards, theremin and assorted percussion instruments. He was joined by frequent vocal collaborator Sampha, creating the experience of a band far more than I could have ever expected from a bass act.
Jerome’s mask was skimpy compared to the ones he appears in on his album sleeves, and he even removed it entirely to address the attendees, which he dubbed the “liveliest bunch of the tour.” While the music still took precedence over the performer(s), there was a powerful sense of presence about SBTRKT as he pounded his drumkit with utmost precision. His place behind the kit made a lot of sense, as SBTRKT’s rapidly evolving syncopated drum patterns are a prime source of dynamics on his tracks, creating shifts of tension beneath the throbbing bass and synth textures. Details on the percussive front, which might’ve been lost in the bass-heavy mix of a more conventional DJ set, were crisply present via the live percussion. Although there seemed to be a shortage of melody, considering how pop-oriented some SBTRKT tunes are, the performance was thoroughly engaging.
The crowd seemed to be on board pretty much the whole way through, singing along to the producer’s more well-known singles. One attendee even did a little bit of SBTRKT cosplay, substituting mask with tribal face paint and a grass skirt tied around his neck. He kept tapping me and others around me on the shoulder when one of “his songs” came on, and about half-way through the set he climbed on top of a speaker to get a soulful groove on. I was personally pleased no one stopped him. The house was especially brought down after SBTRKT opened the stage to suggestions, the near-unanimous response being his collab. with Little Dragon‘s Yukimi Nagano, “Wildfire.” A frenzy fit for the song’s title hit the audience, resulting in a bout of (ill-advised and largely unsuccessful) crowd-surfing. Even if it wasn’t a gimmick to begin with, it was nice to see Jerome ditch the pretenses of secrecy as a mature, self-assured performer.