On the day of the show, tickets were going for $240 each on StubHub.
The merch line was longer than the drinks line.
More than one person was overheard saying, “I never thought this day would come” like some glitchy messiah had landed in Brooklyn from his British home.
On Thursday night, Richard D. James – the mercurial, genre-hopping madman, elusive musician and media-trolling recluse who, under Aphex Twin and other names, has become his own cottage electronic music industry – took his spot in the center of the stage at Brooklyn club Avant Gardner. James’ concert, billed as his “first New York show in decades,” was selection bias writ large; the anticipation among the instantly sold-out crowd so fevered that if his set was just him reading The Great Gatsby and leaving, fans would’ve swooned.
But for an hour and 45 minutes, James, music’s ultimate peripatetic, mesmerized, shuffling from ambient to experimental acid house to jungle to drill ‘n’ bass in a pummeling, assaultive set that focused on his more harder-edged work. It felt like a deliberate tease. In between his many avant garde experimental moments of danceable beats stretched and abused into abstract noise, James hopped around different genres, tossing in sprinkles of highly danceable house, techno and funky breakbeats, only to yank them away just as the beat started to entrance.
It was James saying, “I could do any of these genres, easily, and better than anyone else, but that’s not why you’re here.” You go to an Aphex show to be challenged; to strive and piece together the riddles – not to lose yourself in an easy-to-get trance-like background beat. You don’t forget yourself. You immerse yourself.
It’s a large part of James’ appeal. No one’s going to an Aphex Twin show to “hear the hits.” Like his diverse studio catalog, there’s a perverse, subservient joy in ceding to a genius who knows his power over the crowd and can bend and manipulate them with increasingly experimental sounds as James did tonight. If you were able to compile a setlist for the show, you should just be working for James at this point.
Could you actually see EDM’s biggest hermit? Not a chance. Amid the seizure-inducing strobe lights, lasers and an incredible visual show that included warped photos of New York’s musical and cultural figures, James stood in darkness, never uttering a word. (Not that anyone expected him to.) Sure, you could see him in the psychedelic, distorted images of himself occasionally projected on-screen, but a figure who’s thrived on mystery for decades isn’t gonna hop on the mic with a “Brooklyn, make some noiiiiiiise.”
Despite that, the crowd did turn the show into a joyous party. A genial guy in an open Hawaiian shirt, long hair and a full beard offered anyone within earshot to get on his shoulders (two people accepted); a gesture that would’ve been frustrating and mocked at a festival became an amiable gesture among strangers immersed into a cult.
As James’ set intensified, becoming more mutated beyond danceable form, extended bouts of horror film music gave way to classic jungle beats as the sounds of machine gun drums and bomb-like noises assaulted the audience. Forget dance music: This was a My Bloody Valentine concert, intended to be felt physically as much as musically. “This is like a metal show,” one guy next to me said. He wasn’t wrong. (Another apt description provided by one guest: “This is the music Transformers listen to.”)
As James took his leave at 12:45 a.m. and the house lights came out, few people left. Did anyone really think he’d be back, ready and excited to give an “encore DJ set”? Doubtful. James will perform at Coachella on Saturday night and if anything, tonight’s show doubled as a teaser/tester for a far bigger event in the desert. But it fulfilled the bucket list of many who had given up hope on seeing him live. The expectations were immense. The end result, even more so.
Additional reporting by Dustin Glick