One reason the word “cinematic” gets thrown around so much with DJ Shadow is that his stage presentation deliberately invites it.
As Shadow manipulates hardware center stage, behind him are three screens onto which his longtime visuals coordinator, Ben Stokes (a native Minneapolitan, as Shadow proudly mentioned from the stage), screens opulent visuals from across the spectrum.
More than a few stock images flew by, but tweaked with flair: say, a tropical travelogue of the seventies overlaid with a shiny digital triangle that equally evoked the covers of Dark Side of the Moon and Asia. “Culture-jamming,” they used to call it at the dawn of the '90s. Thursday night at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis, another word might have applied: “nostalgia.”
When Shadow came onstage at 10 p.m. sharp, he noted: “Everything I play tonight is going to be my own music, including some stuff I haven't played live in 20 years.” That set the tone: He talked a fair amount between every few songs, mainly straightforward introductions and explanations.
Near the end, he talked about loving the past but feeling grateful to still get to make music his way and release it on a label in 2016 -- he’s lucky and he knows it, maybe awkward, but genuine. The crowd, most of which was clearly weaned on Shadow’s music from high school (in a few cases, but only a few, that meant recently), appreciated him back at volume.
There wasn’t much dancing, which is part of what made Shadow unique in the beginning: He wasn’t making beats for moving, but mini-symphonies for headphones. Despite the fact that he was electronic dance fans claimed him instantly, he always swore by hip-hop, but as his music has receded from the spotlight, the more beat-oriented he became -- meaning percussion, not production style.
And 16 years is a long time to be doing a road show with thematic visuals; he was on that particular trail before the EDM explosion made them mandatory. They add to it with a scrim in front of the decks, onto which additional, three-dimensional figures are also screened, the DJ in the middle.
Shadow is also unique not only in that he has a legacy to exploit but that he does so on his own terms. That’s meant, among other things, a live album (In Tune and On Time) that cannily splices and dices his catalog. Then there's his profusion of official (if sometimes limited-pressing) DJ mixes and collections of older work, all of it intended to shift the window a little bit.
At the Varsity, some new remixes of Endtroducing tracks earmarked for a forthcoming deluxe reissue of the album for its 20th anniversary helped keep things from settling too much. The classic riffs would get cheers when they’d appear -- as at 10:36, when he slid into “Midnight in a Perfect World” --but then the grooves would change, with everyone along for the ride, as when we learned that this was a new Hudson Mohawke remix.
Sometimes the contrast between Shadow’s sincere modesty and the ballooning heave of both the music and visuals were funny. First song: A blue orb floats on center screen. Now it's a starscape. Now it's a cockpit that melts in front of your eyes. Now the bass vibrates your core while the screen expands into a gaseous Rorschach. A spacesuit floats over airbrushed Mars. Goodness, this beat is slow -- portentous, even.
As the music expanded, so did the color array, and the number of ways the universe exploded onscreen. The song ends: “Hey, Minneapolis, thanks.” Sure, guy. The world just blew up 117 times behind you -- thanks.
I'm not going to pretend to know everything he played. That’s part of what was good about it -- I didn’t need to. The visuals certainly added some movement and sense of event to the music, but I wandered around a fair bit and it kept my ear the whole way. I did enjoy the way that onscreen (for instance, and roughly) the Orb’s second album cover didn’t have to do calisthenics before changing into multiple travelogues.
But the visual bit that hit hardest was the video, in black and white, of “Midnight in a Perfect World,” featuring Shadow moving through a record store, itself a remnant of another era. That’s something Shadow has been able to resist becoming, and he makes sure we know he appreciates it. At the end, Shadow went stage-front and signed autographs, as the stage-front scrim ran, yes, the show’s closing credits.
Critic's bias: I was buying Mo’ Wax comps a year before Endtroducing.
The crowd: A lot of people who stopped trying to have Shadow’s facial hair a long time ago and have settled for Garth Hudson’s.
Overheard in the crowd: At 11:17 p.m., a security man told the bartenders, “Start cleaning up.”
Random notebook dump: Truly, what could be more Minneapolis than to see a woman in a Descendants hoodie at a DJ Shadow show?