Since the late ’70s, London’s Rough Trade records has owned the pulse of British indie music, always unveiling for the first time what becomes the blueprint for the era’s next innovative sound. And it’s not all pasty frenetic weirdos (like the Buzzcocks) or gladiola-toting celibates (the Smiths); the label once released an Augustus Pablo single and has since put out game changers from dub-soul trio the XX and most recently, SBTRKT.
The latter, pronounced “subtract,” played to a packed Bluebird Theater Saturday night. The producer’s debut album has brought a new level of buzz to some staples of the U.K.’s electronic past: garage, dub, house, drum ‘n’ bass, and perhaps most excitingly, Brit-soul. I’ve enjoyed the hell out of SBTRKT’s debut self-titled album over the past several months, but that credit is largely due to the album’s vocal centerpiece, formed around the singer Sampha. Not an official SBTRKT member, I was unsure whether Sampha would be on hand to sing while SBTRKT turned the knobs.
To my delight, just after midnight, the pair emerged (both donning the masks made famous on the album’s cover), with a version of same glowing mask projected in neon against the stage curtain. Album and set opener “Heatwave” isn’t much for lyrical diversity, containing simply a looped refrain of Sampha’s “oooohhh, oooohhh…” but it is high on atmospherics and got heads bobbing in the crowd. “I’m SBTRKT and that’s Sampha. We’re from London, U.K. and this is our final stop in the U.S. I hope you enjoy yourselves,” the masked SBTRKT said.
Next up was “Hold On,” the first track on the album and the first to give full billing to Sampha’s vocals. As tends to happen with sea-level based singers, his voice sounded choppy and lacking breath, detracting a little from the power of the track. What turned it around was both performers’ employment of the drum pads laid out in front of them, breaking the track down to a ’90s jungle vibe. As the set progressed, Sampha’s energy in full blossom, he toasted the audience with straight up house tracks “Living Like I Do” and “Something Goes Right,” Sampha fist-pumping and exclaiming the lyrics “t-t-t-take it slow!” from the song’s chorus. The headliner’s 12 a.m. start wasn’t ideal, but the crowd’s constant shuffling, drink-buying, and drug-seeking didn’t seem to wane as daylight saving’s loomed. An extra hour? Party.
Denver-based DJ Mikey Thunder started the night rolling promptly at 9 with Peter Black assuming deck work from 10:30-11:45.
Craig Randall is a Boulder-based writer and PR pro with an identity crisis. He credits both “Let Me Love You Down” and “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” as life-changing tracks. Check out his website.