Of the many larger-than-life musical archetypes standbys like the Preening Lead Singer, the Strung-out Axeman, the Hip-hop Hustler, and the Tortured Indie Outcast perhaps none is as patently cool as the Globetrotting DJ. He's a lone apostle of the beat, red-eyeing across continents with only a pair of sunglasses and a case of records. Every night, he's the life of the party, the lord of the dance, puppet-mastering a warehouse-/beach-/club-full of ecstatic revelers with his own taste, intuition, and technique.
But if that's largely a myth, legends have to start somewhere. Which became obvious after watching Dutch trance wizard Tiësto cast a spell over Hard Rock Live last Thursday from a stage 100 feet wide, doused in smoke and lasers and pyrotechnics, throwing off surreal sounds at a volume that literally shook the ground. There was no doubt: In this world, to these few thousand people, Tijs Verwest is a god.
Me, I've never been one of those people. Trance's pulse is too frenetic, the melodies too submerged, the swooshy effects too cerebral. Trance to me lacks the hearty funk and sexy soul that thumps through the slightly slower beat of house music. But I'm in the minority as any international nightlifer will tell you, trance is the soundtrack to the world's perpetual party, from Toronto to Thailand to Tel Aviv.
And if you thought rave was dead, guess again. From high up in the rafters, I counted one glowstick to every seven or eight dancers. In the tightly packed crowd heaving at the front half of the arena, I spotted one dude with a pacifier in his mouth and another rocking pants so baggy that they could've doubled as a sleeping bag. In the less dense back of the throng, girls in sparkly tights spun poi, tiny radiant balls at the end of a two-foot tether, twirling one in each hand to Tiësto's techno-tribal incantations. A surprisingly young crowd, this was the second and third generation of Day-Glo club kids, not the slick South Beach sophisticates usually found at high-end pleasure palaces like Space and Mansion. And they appeared to love the music like only the rabidly devout or blisteringly stoned can.
"We flew from Bogotá for the concert yesterday," Jon, a 21-year-old in a soaked white tank, told me out in the hallway. He mopped sweat from his forehead with the Colombian flag draped over his shoulders. "I'm having a good time, but when he was in Brazil last week, it was better. More people, more lights."
More people I could understand, but more lights might've done serious corneal damage. Tiësto stood on stage in the center of a U-shaped, horizontal screen. Projections beamed down from above and onto an even larger screen hung behind him. Dizzying, electronic abstractions blended into falling water, ocean waves, intergalactic skyscapes. At the opposite end of the venue, a bank of computers, monitors, hard drives, and other indeterminate digital equipment rivaled NASA Mission Control. Occasionally, a giant world map filled the screen and an animated line dotted from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires to London to Jerusalem. At each destination, that nation's contingent roared above the ceaseless beat; a Brazilian flag and an Israeli flag were held aloft in the crowd.
Furthering the 'round-the-world theme, a bevy of feather-clad Carnaval dancers and stilt walkers shimmied at the Rio stop, and a quartet of taiko drummers beating monster truck-tire sized drums emerged when Tiësto hit Tokyo. As these four pounded out a slow, thundering rhythm, arms swinging above their heads in synchronized exaggeration, Tiësto slid into a breakbeat breakdown, his skittering high-end accents bouncing on top of their prodigious bass, making for one of the show's highlights.
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Another came when a female vocalist, strangely reminiscent of an unholy Gwen Stefani-Perry Farrell mash-up, burst onto the stage in tight leather pants, close-cropped hair, and a corset. Tiësto disappeared, and this unnamed singer took center stage, stalking the scaffolding above the DJ booth, belting out an indiscernible anthem that everyone but me knew the words to. Her warm, full-throated voice possibly lip-synced, but that seemed beside the point put a human face on Tiësto's machine rhythms, and the crowd was sold by her second and final number.
True fever pitch didn't arrive until close to the end of the night. Tiësto had resumed his position at the decks, surrounded by projections of his own grinning visage on the screens around and behind him. His face was then replaced by words, boldly overstated in stark white letters on a black background. "You have become/What you have always been..." The crowd erupted, and everyone around me was up and howling one of Tiësto's most beloved anthems into the void: "Love Comes Again!" The dude next to me was suddenly shirtless, head thrown back, arms pumping. "I'm rolling and I'm drunk, and I'm loving it!" he blurted, and his sweaty, amphetamine rush was fiercely infectious. The beat evoked a universal pull, and I instantly tripped back through every rave, warehouse party, and full-moon gathering in every exotic locale I've ever been to. There was some kind of comforting continuity in the music, one that everyone was picking up on.
But it didn't last long for me, anyway. My trance trance faded as quickly as it set in. On my way out, I talked to Tony Rodriguez, a bloodshot, 33-year-old DJ from Miami who first saw Tiësto ten years ago at South Beach's Shadow Lounge. "Even back then, we could tell he was gonna be huge," he said, reminding me that in 2004, Tiësto played the opening ceremony at the Athens Olympics. I asked him what exactly made this guy one of the best-loved musicians on the planet. "It's the music most of what he plays, he produced. It's his technique for blending; it's how he tries to get the feeling of everyone in the room."
To some, apparently, this Globetrotting DJ has trotted his way into a whole other reality. "Tiësto's always taken it to another level," Rodriguez gushed. "Now he's taking it to another dimension."