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THEO PARRISH LIVE, BARBICAN, LONDON

Theo Parrish enters the live realm with a full band as part of the Barbican's Digital Revolution festival. But does the traditional band set-up suit his electronic star-gazing vision?

London's Barbican Complex never fails to make a big impression. A combined arts and cultural centre forming a nucleus within tower blocks and the lower rise maisonettes of a — now highly prized — residential estate, it's perched like a gargantuan, imposing, concrete bird of prey on the edge of the City of London in E1.

The Brutalist architecture of the building is what makes it so striking. A prime example of that 1950s/'60s style, its Utopian/Dystopian vision and the weird atmosphere it engenders in the visitor reminds of nothing so much as 1970s sci-fi films, where ideas of the future have ossified into this kind of retro idea of what the world to come would look like — think films like Woody Allen's Sleeper or Westworld and you get the picture.


DJ Mag is here to see a special performance that's part of the Barbican's wide-ranging, multimedia Digital Revolution exhibition. Comprising art, design, film installations and of course music performances, its focus is on technology and looking towards what the future might hold. Teddy's Get Down is one of the very first live performances by Detroit house and techno avatar Theo Parrish and his full live band, that aims to recreate music from his vast Sound Signature label catalogue and beyond.

Fellow Detroit funk master Amp Fiddler joins Theo on keys, with Akwasi Mensah on bass, Duminie DePorres playing electric guitar and Myele Manzanza banging drums in the sizeable stone-carved auditorium, as well as two backing singers, and an occasional brass section. It's an ambitious undertaking without doubt, and as we take our seats and wait for the show to begin we can't help but wonder how it will play out.

Theo Parrish's sound is hard to pin down, being hugely diverse, but what it shares is an electronic exoskeleton, a backdrop of techno beats and synths, but frequently drawing on the heritage of music of black American origin and its club-oriented developments, from disco through jazz, funk and boogie up to their modern manifestations. Made using electronic equipment as well as densely-layered samples, it's almost entirely the work of Theo himself. The question remains how live instrumentation can hope to conjure the intoxicating combination of futuristic technological expression and soul heritage in this environment.

When the lights dim and the band enter the stage, accompanied by four dancers, it's clear this is no hastily assembled project. Instead, the band hit the ground running with deliriously funky versions of tracks from right across Theo's immense discography. Classic house cut 'Sky Walking' with its jazzy key riff and spacy atmospheric “Walking through the sky” vocal becomes a celebratory disco jumper in the Mizzell Brothers mode. The track serves to introduce the band, with Akwasi's incredible bass playing at the forefront, Amp's killer playing adding flavour, the dancers geeing up the seated crowd who are now growing restless, wanting to get up and move.

It's really the next track though that proves the catalyst for the night's success. Theo, centre stage with a set of keys and drum/trigger pads in front of him, and a mic, starts playing a wicked electro boogie synth bass riff, before the other members of the band and the gorgeously voiced female vocalists join the fray, with the lush 'Chemistry' an electro funk masterpiece that has everyone out of their seats and jamming.

The dancers onstage really add something, two guys and two girls, grooving in an intricate, elegant style halfway jazz dance and halfway b-boy breakdancing. Later there's a degree of jazz noodling, as a track off the forthcoming new Theo album gets an airing, but the wild Eddie Hazel psychedelic guitar of Duminie lifts it into the ether.

Theo himself is all grins throughout, seeming a little overwhelmed by the incredible response from the sold-out crowd, who are loving it. Far from letting the band do all the work, he's very much involved in every track, whether playing keys, basslines or singing.

Another new tune is aired, latest single 'Footwork', which isn't a hyperspeed slice of Chicago juke but is instead a boogiefied bruk beat curveball in the style of IG Culture or Bugz in the Attic, with a wicked bassline and lava keys. Older track 'Changes' is another killer jazz funk interpretation, with its Roy Ayers luxurious mood and key changes/time signature flips. The encore meanwhile is a cover of obscure but great disco classic 'Ain't No Need' by Skye, which rolls out for ages as the band are put through their paces. 

Like Theo's own music, the Barbican is a retro-future construction, something that curiously evokes science fiction while remaining rooted in the past. Theo's tracks, with their studious disco and jazz references, operate in the interzone between futuristic electronics and vintage detail.

What is a little strange is how, as part of this exhibition celebrating the new, Theo has chosen to revert to a retro form of presenting his music, offering a very traditional band set-up at the expense of his more utopian machine ideas. But that's not to take away from an incredible performance, which shows beyond doubt that his creations are the measure of his musical heroes, and then some.

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