It’s been nearly a year since the much-anticipated return of one of dance music’s favourite DJs, James Zabiela, to Australian shores. Many have by now already experienced his blistering skills and much like myself, are still suffering from pain after having danced for hours and hours to his unique brand of dance music. His inaugural visit to Canberra’s Lot 33 last year was heralded as one of the most groundbreaking sets ever heard or experienced by those that were in attendance. So it was with much excitement that a rather large Sydney contingent and I returned for another Friction Intimate party featuring the unique talents of James Zabiela on Friday, 11th June 2004. I can safely say that I’d be very surprised if the foundations of Lot 33 are still intact.
I have to make a confession. I honestly did not want to like what James Zabiela had on offer. So many times I’ve been told to look out for this or that DJ because they are unbelievable and that their music will floor me. So many times I’ve been bitterly disappointed. I have never heard a bad thing about James, so much so that my ears were bleeding from all the compliments he was getting. In many ways, I really wanted him to fail in impressing me and badly. I wanted to be given a reason to write a bad review about the music he was playing. I wanted to find his mixing skills average and nothing to be hyped about. I really wanted to find a fault in his behaviour, hoping he would be a prima donna of the worst kind. Yeah, I was gleefully rubbing my hands together in the hope of slaughtering him.
Yes, well, my wicked nature was replaced by jaw dropping bewilderment and much joy! I can safely say that I have never been as impressed by any one DJ than I was with James Zabiela. He is the best that I have ever seen. It’s like that. You can not compare him with anyone else because he has a style that is truly his own. From the moment he stepped up behind the decks, Lot 33 was his to do with as he pleased. And what a ride that was! Never in a million years would I have thought that he would bang it out almost immediately but that’s exactly what he did. From the get go, the beats grabbed you, shook you around and then threw you back down on that packed dance floor! It wasn’t until after a while, I realised the young Jedi was playing techno and it was at that point that I probably screamed out of shock.
But it’s not just that James played techno, it’s the way he did it. With a couple of tracks he would take you to the edge of insanity and when you thought your mind would implode, he gently took you back with the gentler beats. This gave you enough time to breathe because once again he would take you back up to that edge. In between, the crowd was treated to his now trademark looping and scratching but also a rather effective use of acid basslines and tracks with lots of electro tinges that had substance and depth. It was dramatic in the best way and overall, it’s a sound that I could never really describe.
Towards the last hour or so he started to introduce breaks into his set. I think by that time it was a much-needed relief because I, for one, was in so much pain from not only dancing my butt off but from screaming so much. Not being a huge fan of breaks in any shape, I gladly welcomed anything he had to offer because I now realised that it would not be stock standard. It would be breaks the way Zabiela plays them ie with an evil twist. And that’s exactly what he dished up and the Lot 33 crowd ate up every single beat. For me, it was a joy to be a part of something that special and that unique. There were times when you couldn’t hear the music because the crowd was screaming their appreciation so loudly. Quite simply, for me, it was a perfect musical rollercoaster and I couldn’t get enough of it
I don’t think I’ve ever screamed my appreciation for a DJ as much as I did for James Zabiela that night. If someone that young, can be so technically skilled and so musically intuitive, it only gives me hope that future DJs will take a leaf out of his book and follow suit. And it’s not only that he has those skills that everyone raves about, it’s also his presence behind a set of decks that also matters. Yes, he is humble. That much is obvious! It’s also the fact that he has a sense of professionalism that many bigger named DJs embarrassingly lack. I was right down the front of Lot 33 the entire duration of his set and the number of times I couldn’t help but shake his hand because I was amazed was ridiculous. While I’ve shaken hands with many DJs to show appreciation, it’s the way James looked you straight in the eye and you just knew he was honoured to be where he was and doing what he was.
More than anything else, the way he played his set at Lot 33, made you realise that you were given a personal insight to his mind and his happy state. If anything, when he jumped, the crowd jumped, when he looked up and smiled, the place went wild. But it was when he dropped those massive basslines, the whole joint was screaming so loudly you could feel vocal vibrations hammering through your body. It was an unforgettable night! One that I wish had never ended. Could I spot any tunes? Two if that and it’s more than likely that one of them was wrong.
After having experienced a James Zabiela set not only that night but also on the following at the Renaissance Winter Ball, I honestly say that the Canberra set was not a fluke. For so long, I think we’ve learnt to accept mediocrity from touring internationals, it’s not until someone as freakish as James Zabiela comes along that you realise that the majority of everything you’ve previously heard has been lacking in something. Given my pessimism before having seen James play, I would have scoffed at my now enthusiastic choice of words to describe him. Now, I take back everything I thought before. Is he that good? No, he’s not ‘good’. He is more brilliant than I could ever describe, he is more talented than I could ever have hoped for. As a DJ, James Zabiela is everything that we could ever want but only wish for in our dreams. He is definitely more than my wildest imagination could create.
My review would not be complete if I did not mention the wonderfully talented Two Square aka Jeff Drake and Mikah Freeman. Playing support for someone like James Zabiela would be daunting for those who aren’t secure in their talents. But Canberra’s dynamic duo more than held their own up against the UK whiz kid. Their brand of progressive house and breaks is something that I always look forward to when I’m at a Friction party and I feel it’s only a short matter of time before they become much bigger on the Sydney scene and eventually in Melbourne. As I’ve said in the past, just watching Jeff and Mikah work together is a treat and they certainly know how to play to a crowd and draw them into their web. These guys are definitely ones to look out for! I wanted to stay on for Jono Fernandez’s set, who played immediately after James but I could barely stand up, let alone think straight. From all reports, he kept the vibe going right up until the house lights were switched. But for me, James Zabiela proved to be more than my wrecked body could handle.
Congratulations to the Friction crew for once again putting on a fabulous party. A huge thank you to James Zabiela for proving me wrong and reaffirming my faith in the ‘DJ’ phenomenon. And also for wreaking havoc on my mind, body and hearing.
Am I impressed? Just a little….