A line that long – from the 6th Avenue entrance to San Diego’s House of Blues, all the way down to Broadway, and wrapping around the Marriott on the corner – always smacks of intrigue. And in this case, it was well-deserved, because inside the venue, Amon Tobin’s ISAM Live 2.0 show was waiting.
The Brazilian composer/DJ has done these completely immersive audio/visual performances -- using a gigantic, geometric structure as the centerpiece -- since the end of last year. But last week, he blew America’s Finest City away with the show’s latest, reconfigured version.
As everyone entered, the concert hall, it slowly became a sweatbox, and a big, black backdrop covered the stage from floor to ceiling. Ethereal, orchestral preshow music that sounded like the bed to a book-on-tape of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos set the mood and foreshadowed the evening’s overall space theme.
By 10:30 p.m., the crowd was getting antsy, with wild yawps and a general din of anticipatory chatter filling the room. Ten minutes later, when the backdrop fell, the first clicks and blips filled the air, and the “structure” slowly came to life, The packed room let Tobin know they were glad to be there with a wild ovation, but that went away quickly. As more was revealed, and the music ramped up, most could do nothing but stand in awed silence.
Although the picture above is from the original model and has since been reconfigured, the structure itself is impressive. A mixture of M.C. Escher and the old Q*Bert video game in design, Tobin works from a centrally placed cube in the expansive set. Images are shot onto its white, canvassed walls in a multitude of ways, programmers and set designers collaborating to utilize every inch of the framework with projection mapping. Part IMAX movie, part geometry mind-trickery, part THX Dolby Digital commercial, the show envelops from the get-go, putting visual and auditory sensations on extreme high alert.
Images -- smoke, fire, spaceships, inner workings of what looked like the Millennium Falcon, grids, cold alien landscapes -- all of it completely synchronized, combine for a constant illusion and story to the music.
Colors burst in time to the relentless bass -- greens, oranges, reds, yellows, and electric blues -- all throbbing and pulsating with the images, creating an expertly crafted music video and synchronized light show that mess with senses and twist perception.
Occasionally, the lights came up in Tobin’s cube, allowing the audience to get little glimpses of him. Just as enough time had elapsed to get completely lost in the visuals and sensory overload, there he was to remind everyone that this was, indeed, a live show. Dressed in an astronaut’s suit, Tobin poured over the controls, nodding his head and rejoicing in the sheer magnitude of it all.
While much of the evening’s music was taken from his latest release, ISAM, Tobin also played cuts from his latest alias/incarnation, Two Fingers. And it was all mixed with field recordings, which varied from indecipherable ambient noise to what sounded like the “smoke monster” from TV’s Lost and bits of organ from the hockey scene in Strange Brew, all of it elevated by an in-your-face, supercharged decibel boost.
At the end of what could only be deemed “the first half,” Tobin came out of his cube to acknowledge the crowd and shake some hands. After ditching the space garb and throwing on a black T-shirt and cap, he returned to his pod for the second half. It included a section in which Tobin’s hands played drums while they were both mapped -- and projected -- onto the structure and in time with the music. There was also a lot more teeth-rattling bass, and even some Metallica riffs thrown in for good measure.
The DJ/producer/composer came back out a second time to shake hands with the crowd, this time to deafening applause, and then returned to his cube to play one more.
While I think it would be impossible for anyone to walk away from a show like this without a tremendous respect for the creativity and pageantry it provided, I have to say that Amon Tobin’s ISAM Live 2.0 is, by far, the greatest visual spectacle I’ve ever seen in music. And I am jealous of fans in Berkeley and L.A. who get the last two dates on this amazing tour.