There are several ongoing debates around the idea of "live acts" in electronic music circles. One that gets some of the most impassioned responses is the simple question of what actually constitutes one. Is it someone that only plays their own songs? Is it someone that radically (or subtly) reinterprets them? Can you play other people's songs in your own live act? Do you need to play an instrument—in whatever form that might take—to be considered a live act? All 20 of the acts below had different answers to those questions, but they all had one thing in common in 2011: They were among the best in the world.
It may just be their tour rider forcing every venue to turn down everybody that plays before them, but when Modeselektor take to the stage, everything just seems a little bit more present. That sort of thing happens all the time at rock shows, and it's no accident that Modeselektor take the same approach. Their live show is—for all intents and purposes—a rock show. They have special lights and visuals, courtesy of Pfadfinderei. They have a guy who comes on the mic every so often, and one of their opening numbers on their most recent tour takes great pains to tell you exactly who they are. It's spectacle, pure and simple.
Most everything about KiNK screams throwback. Everything, that is, aside from his live show. The Bulgarian producer seems to take a particular pleasure in new technology, and doesn't hesitate to show it off
either. Despite his music sounding like its beamed straight in from the heyday of Chicago house, you can tell that his eagerness to actually perform that music is what keeps him an in-demand booking around the world. After all, everybody loves a Novation Launchpad solo, right?
Kollektiv Turmstrasse once described
the inspiration for their sound as trying to "create the atmosphere of the sun rising while sitting on a beach." That's as good as any for their recorded work, but what they play in clubs is a distinctly tougher beast that matches emotion with urgency. That said, the duo don't do anything special with their live set technically. That's a good thing in this case: When you have as songs as touching as their remix of Federleicht's "On the Streets
," it's about what you don't do as much as anything else.
Frank Heinrich is that rare thing in electronic music: an artist who is equally as comfortable behind the decks as he is playing live. Chalk that up to years of experience and plenty of practice—as part of the Cadenza family of artists, Heinrich's percussion-driven house sound has been in demand right across the globe for several years now. Although with hits such as "Caminando
," "Enjoy Music
" and "Ronson
" in his locker, it's not really surprising that promoters would want him to supply the soundtrack their party.
It's easy to take innovators for granted a few years after their initial burst of insight. What's most fascinating about Mathew Jonson a decade on from his first 12-inch on Itiswhatitis is how, still, almost no one else sounds like him. Jonson's RA podcast and high-profile EPs on Minus
and Crosstown Rebels
only served to remind us in 2011 that his formula can yield endless permutations—and that his live show remains one of the most unique around.
Guillaume & Coutu Dumonts is something of a dark horse: despite being one of the most talented house producers of the past few years, his profile has never risen too high. But what the Quebecois artist lacks in star power he more than makes up for in personality: think of the crazed preacher in "I Was On My Way to Hell," the chopped up soul of "The Pussy Shepherd
" or the warm and jazzy feel that permeates all of his music. Any set that makes a medley of these parts is going to be pretty hard to resist, and that's why he remains a favorite at parties the world over.
A Detroit techno legend finally debuting one of his cult aliases. Seems like a no-brainer, right? And so it was in 2011. With only a few live shows to the name, Carl Craig presents 69 was enjoyed by enough festivalgoers to slot easily onto our live acts list. It helps that the tunes are undeniable: "If Mojo Was A.M.," "Jam the Box" and "Desire" are barely contained outbursts of rhythmic invention, and sounded just as fresh as they did in the early '90s when they were first released.
When Kassem Mosse finished a set this fall, DJ and former Laid
shook his head and said, "He believes so much in his own music." This is more or less true of all live acts—i.e. artists who, given the choice, perform their own tracks instead of someone else's—but it's especially true of the Workshop
stalwart. For him there seems to be little doubt that 112 BPM is fast enough, analogue gear does the job just fine and something that sounds like "enchiladas" repeated over and over can work as a hook. Luckily for him (and us), he's pretty much always right.
Kristian Beyer and Frank Wiedemann have always thought that it made the most sense for only one of them to represent Âme at DJ gigs. However, these days there's a distinct division of labour: Beyer DJs, Wiedemann plays live. From the Innervisions Orchestra to A Critical Mass through to Henrik Schwarz's solo shows, live performance has always been an integral part of the Berlin label's MO, which was something only too evident from Wiedemann's sets during 2011. Of course it also helps that he has one of modern deep house's finest discographies to draw upon.
It's always a bit tough to define what Sandwell District are doing on stage. And asking Regis or Function, the two members of the collective that make up their live entity, will only leave you more confused. What we do know from a recent article
in The Wire, however, is that tension, conflict and a broken shoulder or two are essential in making this techno act one of the most vital in the world. (And that you should most definitely stay out of the way when the two are offstage together.)
When they were first getting started, Benoit & Sergio claimed their live act would involve kneepads, saxophone and headset mics. In the end they went with the classic dual laptop set-up, but that didn't make them any less sensational. From The Shelborne
in Miami to fabric
in London, their flamboyant electronic pop gave nightclubs a much needed jolt that easily made them one of the most memorable acts of the year. Not many production duos get the crowd singing along, let alone about horse tranquilizers.
Guti likes to describe his live set as "dynamic" and it's difficult to disagree with him. Although operating on a standard laptop set-up, it's often said that the Desolat producer brings something a little different to the table. Our guess is that it's many things. Guti played in a famed Argentinian rock band during the '90s and has basically been playing piano since he could sit up straight. Then there's his emphasis on constantly producing fresh original material for his shows. In other words, he has an angle—and it seems to be working for him.
Clean lines, tidy drums, an immaculate separation of sounds in the stereo field. Martin Buttrich's music is defined by how clear it sounds, a vestige of his time spent in the studio making tracks for the likes of Timo Maas and Loco Dice. What's most powerful about his live show, however, is how the theoretical can translate so easily into something physically powerful and emotionally resonant. He's a perfectionist that never lets OCD get in the way of a good time.
So devoted was Laurent Garnier to his L.B.S. concept in 2011 that we couldn't even convince him to step behind the decks as an unannounced headliner for our RA X series
. You can hardly blame him. Benjamin Rippert and Stephane "Scan X" Dri pushed Garnier to a different place. It was a true DJ/live hybrid, with the usual airings of "Man with the Red Face
" interspersed with new tracks by others that seemed ripe for reinterpretation. Garnier described it
as something that will "give my work a new lease of life." Why go back to the old when you're having too much fun exploring the new?
Hip-hop isn't the first term that would spring to mind when thinking about a Gaiser live show. But in the same way that hip-hop DJs tear through tracks at breakneck speeds to build intensity, the same is true of the Minus producer when he takes to the stage. A focus on otherworldly synths and creeping basslines is still very much a part of the Gaiser sound, although with 2011 representing one of his quieter years on the release front, his re-entry onto our poll would point to a man on top of his game in the live arena.
Rumor has it Guy Gerber once played live at P Diddy's villa in Ibiza while strippers splashed around in enormous glasses of champagne. This kind of makes sense if you think about it. Gerber's tech house sound has recently morphed into something trippy, lurid and weirdly soulful, helped along by the occasional R&B sample. It's made him a hit at hundreds of other parties around the world, so why not at a ritzy celebrity bash? Whether Gerber's album with Puff will see the light of day is anyone's guess, but when he's this strong on his own, it's hard to care too much.
German producer Henrik Schwarz may just play live, but 2011 showcased exactly what that can mean. Playing right after Sven Vath at Time Warp, he played the tougher end of his jazz-inflected house music to a massive crowd. Around the same time, he was also busy in sit-down venues improvising delicately alongside jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft. Later on in the year, he played downstairs at Berghain and upstairs at Panorama Bar in the same night—an invitation that few have received, and even fewer have successfully pulled off.
If the idea of a drunk, shirtless French dude pouring vodka down your throat from the front of a stage doesn't sound appealing, then you clearly haven't seen dOP yet. Their continued presence near the summit of our live acts poll is easy to explain: the group comprised of Damian Van de Sande, Clement Zemstov and Jonathan "JoJo" Illel put on a show. And amid a sea of ambiguous laptop performances, behaving like good old fashioned rock stars is clearly something that you value.
They say that nostalgia is all the rage these days. Electronic music is no different. When Richie Hawtin's new Plastikman live show debuted last year, it was like a greatest hits tour, tackling all of the classics for the diehards and serving as a valuable history lesson for those who weren't there the first time around. Hawtin upgraded the rig in 2011 to version 1.5, with a bigger engine under the hood and a few new interactive features. What's more enticing, however, is that it means 2.0 can only be around the corner—and the evolution of an already next-level live experience.
The new guard is fully upon us. With Jamie Jones
taking over the top spot of RA's 2011 DJ poll
, it only seems right that Nicolas Jaar would be honored by RA readers as the finest live. Jaar's live show doesn't lean on pyrotechnics or bleeding-edge technology. He simply played really good songs really well. Whether that meant with his live band or performing solo, the focus was on transforming the club space into a place where dynamics ruled, charisma mattered and the tyranny of the constant kick drum fell away. Like Plastikman last year, Nicolas Jaar proved that you don't need to rock a crowd non-stop to win fans—and once again showcased that substance is just as important as a bit of style.