Booking a DJ to play electronic music in the Frank Sinatra Showroom, in the Cal Neva casino on Lake Tahoe's North Shore, might seem like a sacrilege, or maybe a farce. Sinatra himself called it the Celebrity Showroom when he owned it in the early '60s, and for good reason he billed Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Marilyn Monroe on a regular basis. That sort of mainstream star wattage has never been emitted by a DJ, and probably never will.
Despite a hard sell of electronica and DJ culture as the Next Big Thing in the late '90s, no one much buys the idea of the superstar DJ anymore. Shadow and Cut Chemist still shift units, whether online or in the Bay Area's resurgent underground party scene, but the figure behind the turntables arouses little intrigue now. The notion that DJs might one day share dressing rooms with rock stars has pretty much come and gone. That a DJ might share ones once occupied by the Rat Pack just sounds absurd.
What, then, to make of the sold-out DJ show at Cal Neva one Saturday night last month? The headliner was Bassnectar, a 28-year-old Berkeley resident most widely known as DJ Lorin. Before the doors opened, a couple of young men in beards and knit caps stood expectantly in front of will-call, hitting people up in line for a "miracle," Deadhead-speak for a free ticket. Snowboard types and girls with clumpy dreads sat next to veteran gamblers at the card tables. One young woman clad in Burner couture platform boots, G-string, and a tiny swatch of netting across her breasts elicited disapproving looks from the cocktail waitresses.
Quite a few in attendance had followed Bassnectar from San Francisco, where he had topped the bill of a sweaty Chinese New Year party at 1015 Folsom. Some fans took the two-show weekend as an excuse for a bender, but any Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feeling was tempered by a certain crunchiness in the crowd as if next morning's hangovers were going to be treated with buckwheat pancakes.
Inside the three-hundred-capacity showroom, the performer was holding court on the fabled stage. As he cued up tracks behind a bank of gear (rather than turntables, he uses a laptop to mix audio files) Lorin jumped, shook, and headbanged behind a curtain of cascading, waist-length hair. Acting more as a conductor than a DJ, he conjured the music, not from the machines in front of him, but from the audience itself. He raised and lowered his fist in sync with the modulations of his trademark deep, wobbly basslines, telegraphing to the dancers when the next plunge was due.
At moments he seemed to be choreographed by Jim Henson. When mouthing Princess Superstar's goofy lyrics from one of the rapper's tracks he frequently plays, he raised an eyebrow and bounced his head like Grover. During a full-tilt drum-'n'-bass buildup, he headbanged with the fur-flying gusto of Animal, the Muppets drummer. But then he would wash out the breakbeat rattling through the woofers with a soft ambient section and address the crowd on the mic, one of many dance-music DJ no-nos he regularly commits.
"We're in the Frank Sinatra Ballroom, everyone," he said with a wholesome grin. "Just think about all of our grandmas coming here to dance back in the day. You should go home, call her up, and say, 'I fucking love you, Grandma!'" Pause. "Well, maybe not the 'fucking' part." Then he went back to quaking like the rock star he's not supposed to be. Bassnectar's stage presence is intentionally, even defiantly antithetical to the stereotype of an aloof DJ dispassionately perched beneath a pair of headphones.
As they often do at Bassnectar's gigs, the women responded to this enthusiasm in kind. Maybe it was the ghost of Ol' Blue Eyes haunting the building, or the spell cast by the loop the DJ had specially prepared of the legend crooning same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine, but two women in front screamed, teenybopper style, and mimed throwing their panties onstage. Men whooped when he dropped a particularly grinding breakbeat. After his set, fans surrounded him.
Twenty-eight-year-old fan Jon Epsteyn had come from Reno for the show and said Lorin personalized the experience. "Right before he went on ... [my roommate and I] went up to him, and I said, 'Thanks so much for New Year's, man. You rocked it!' He gave me a hug and he was so rad. We thanked him, he thanked us, and the whole show just felt like a personal session with him."
Such excitement, while perhaps not at the level of celebrity reverence for the man the showroom was named for, is still unusual for a DJ, especially a homegrown one. Celebrity DJs typically hail from Europe the Bay Area's most popular ones have typically been nonpersonalities. But Bassnectar's sets consistently draw the largest crowds at Burning Man, a momentum he has carefully parlayed into a formidable presence in San Francisco's aboveground club scene. For the last two years, the readers of Nitevibe.com, a local nightlife guide, have voted him the best DJ in the city. Many fans interviewed for this article reported having seen him more than twenty times, and a gaggle followed him on the biodiesel bus tour for his new album on OM Records, set for release next month.
A Bay Area DJ for seventeen years, Dutch co-owns the syndicated dance show Thump Radio and co-organizes Opulent Temple, a Burning Man camp that regularly books Bassnectar. Dutch says he has watched from the inside as every wave of local electronic dance music culture passed through the Bay Area. "If people get excited about one out of a thousand DJs," he says from his home in Berkeley, "Lorin is the one."
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