If you had to distill the entirety of the Larry Levan Street Party — held Sunday outside the former site of the Paradise Garage, the club where Levan was the resident DJ — the obvious choice would be the sound of ecstatic applause. There was applause when the first few seconds of Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” drifted across the PA; there was applause when Jocelyn Brown took the stage and roared through her classic “I’m Caught Up (In a One Night Love Affair).” And there was applause any time a group of audience members wriggled their way to the center of a circle of onlookers and executed a particularly impressive series of dance maneuvers. (This last part happened often.)
The Street Party was part of the first wave of activities in the Red Bull Academy Music Festival, which just began the second year of its New York edition. (Third, if you count a 2001 installment that was halted after the events of September 11th.) As the name implies, the events that are part of RBMA look at music from a historical (and sometimes global) perspective, leapfrogging through styles and decades, though heavily emphasizing dance and electronic music, to provide a kind of full-participation course in music history. The constant bursts of applause at the Street Party on Sunday reflected not only the day’s mood of continuous rapture, but also its feeling of unity. The crowd gathered on King Street spanned generations — the vast majority looked old enough to have actually gone to the Paradise Garage during its heyday in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — as well as ethnicities and sexual orientations. The music, provided by DJs Francois K, David DePino and Joey Llanos, swung from the later end of disco — Levan’s remix of MFSB’s “Love is the Message” made a welcome late-afternoon appearance — into the early years of the garage and club music that Levan pioneered and helped popularize. It was fizzy and frothy and relentlessly jubilant, full of loose grooves that gave way into ecstatic choruses, most of which were belted out in unison by the euphoric crowd. The afternoon often felt like a brief glimpse into the best New York could be, a non-stop party that embraced outlandish outsiders, set to an inspired soundtrack. (Though the mood was welcoming, not everyone could attend — at one point it was announced that there were 3,000 people lined up on the surrounding sidewalks, waiting to get in.)
The party was the ecstatic high point of a formidable opening run of events. Though the Street Party concentrated mostly on disco, two earlier events were broader in their range. The Festival’s opening event, Bounce Ballroom, showcased four different styles of dance, the New York street dance known as Flexing; Voguing, which rose to prominence in the ‘80s; Chicago’s Housing, and Jersey Club. As with the Street Party, there were performances on stage, but there were even more in the audience, where crowds clustered around energetic attendees dead set on one-upping each other. It paired well with Friday’s Four Corners of the Clash, which provided a similar traveller’s guide to four different strains of club music. The event, held at the Brooklyn venue Baby’s All Right, was a reprise of a competition that took place last year, but where its predecessor was designed to be a challenge, Friday’s installment was meant as a celebration. Of the four performers, only one brought along special guests, a hallmark of last year’s clash. Federation Sound, whose set volleyed enthusiastically between dancehall and hip-hop, brought out the Brooklyn rap duo Smif N Wessun to lukewarm reception and the Jamaican singer Shaggy to a significantly warmer one. (It probably goes without saying that his performance of “It Wasn’t Me” was one of the evening’s giddier highlights.) They were preceded by Que Bajo whose performance was full of dense, frantic music that mashed-up elements of cumbia and salsa with booming bass music. Of all of Friday’s performances, theirs was the most thrilling and kaleidoscopic. You could hear snippets of hundreds of different global styles at any given moment; the crackling rat-a-tat of reggaeton collapsed into the easy thunk of dancehall, the tight shimmy of mambo eased into the slow roll of Southern hip-hop. By comparison, Just Blaze’s set was a strict exercise in formalism. Comprised largely of familiar hip-hop songs — most of them by Jay-Z — his performance was well-executed, but dispiritingly unadventurous. At the end of the night were Trouble & Bass, who won last year’s competition. Fittingly, their performance felt like a victory lap. They were riotous and booming and terrifically physical.
There was a physicality, too, to Saturday’s set by the British producer Bobby Krlic, who performs as the Haxan Cloak. The songs on last year’s startling Excavation felt like dark omens — murky, ominous atmospherics that were almost paranormal in their eerieness. By contrast, his performance at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple was walloping and brutal. Bass hit just below levels comfortable to the human ear, then expanded, getting louder and louder until — terrifyingly — it blotted out all of the ambient noise in the room. Bone-dry crackles of digital noise were interrupted by a giant black roar of sound, which repeated again and again. The effect was like being sucked suddenly beneath a tidal wave. When melodies did arise, they were chilling and baleful, like the five-note, minor-key organ figure that circled mournfully in front of a hail of earsplitting static. Occasionally, the pace quickened, and the groaning minor chords took on an air of cold panic. Bathed in red light and wreathed in smoke, Krlic looked almost infernal, like the Styx boatman dabbling in horror soundtracks on the side. His stunning, sarcophagal set was the exact inverse of Sunday’s street party, but its impact was just as potent and lasting.