The Middle East Corner houses both a restaurant and a bar, sometimes showcasing live rock, jazz, funk, and Latin music. With only a small corner stage and a capacity of 70 people, space is limited. Every inch of the floor requires careful consideration. Hiding behind the kitchen are double doors that guard the downstairs club, which holds 550 people. Once you pass the ladies who check IDs and hand out wristbands, the entrance is all yours: push open the door and step down a flight of stairs. Stop in front of security and let him check your bag. Another pair of doors. Open them and find yourself standing at the very edge of a defining moment—one in which your audial and visual senses converge to form a collective engagement.
On a rather random Sunday night, music fans ventured and came together for a down-tempo electronic concert. Relaxed beats with a dependable flow seemed appropriate for such a night. Natasha Kmeto, Little People and Emancipator came to the Middle East in Cambridge as part of Emancipator’s Winter tour. The Brain Trust, a local multi-faceted music company, hosted the event.
During the sound check, the dance floor is just empty space. The crew are setting up sound and lights for the show. Bartenders are ripping open cases of beer, storing the bottles in the fridge behind the bar. Peter Clark, the tour manager, is standing in the middle of the floor, supervising the whole ensemble. He’s decked out in a striped beanie, a blue and red plaid flannel shirt, and dark jeans. His parents are standing behind him; his mother dances to samples of music that emanate from the speakers. She is the first dancer of the night.
“Is that cool?” asks a technician.
“Sounds good to me,” replies Natasha Kmeto, who’s standing at her station playing with sounds.
Laurent Clerc, aka Little People, is also keeping track of his equipment. He looks silly wearing a puffy blue jacket and a dark green scarf wrapped tightly around his neck.
Once Laurent and Natasha are finished, Doug Appling, or Emancipator, appears wearing a large black jacket and a camo cap. He walks back and forth on the empty dance floor, bobbing his head to the beat of his own music. Ilya Goldberg, Doug’s accompanying violinist, stares at his computer while plucking strings from his electric violin. Doug walks back to the stage.
“Check, check, 1, 2, — Emancipator…in Boston…Check.”
Once off the microphone his voice becomes quiet again. While talking he keeps shuffling his fingers inside his coat pocket, then he scratches his beard, all the while moving back and forth on the balls of his feet. Once he sits down for an interview, he keeps his hands together, fingers crossed—his feet are swinging from side to side over the edge of the stage. Sage, Ilya’s all-access dog, is at his heels.
Finally, it’s 8 p.m.: doors open.
The club fills up slowly. 10 minutes before Natasha takes the stage, there is a relaxed, light dialogue among the 30-40 people here. People surround the center of the dance floor on all sides but no one is really dancing. Instead, they sip their drinks; make comments to their friends.
Then a young man wearing a white T-shirt and a beige backpack bounces towards the front of the stage, slicing his way through the tense center floor. Others begin to follow as Natasha blends her soulful voice with a slow and steady bass line. She records herself crooning into the microphone and then loops it along with a softer melody. As her set progresses she gradually responds to her percussive beats. Shadowed by a blue tint, her hips swing from side to side as her hands travel over her computer, then to her equipment, where a rosy light shines onto her crooked fingers.
About an hour later more people have filled the empty space. A young girl is vibing by the bar on the upper level. She’s wearing a plush wolf hat with her hands dipped into attached paws. She waves her hands to the beat, eyes focused on Natasha. Other people’s faces are painted with bright colors and decorated with fake jewels.
Laurent begins his set at 9:30 p.m. He plays a silky piano melody over a steady percussive beat. He works the six machines laid out in front of him while rocking his whole body with the tempo. More and more people crowd the dance floor over time. Now, with each new song, fans cheer.
At this point the audience has embraced the tonal vibrations rippling through the downstairs club. The artist line-up delivered a wave of calmness alien to the Middle East. A glimpse over your shoulder reveals a mass of bobbing heads. Only three hours before, the club was completely empty—waiting to be filled in more ways than one. Now, between every creak in the floor, every space found within each body, there exists a collective awareness.
Laurent finishes his set to the sound of cheers and clapping hands. Once again chatter replaces down-tempo music. One girl plays with an LED hula-hoop in the back. As the toy spins, bright neon colors swirl together, forming a dotted pattern. She loops the hula-hoop over her head then lets it gracefully swivel back down to her waist.
The rest await emancipation. A glowing red light illuminates eager bodies facing the stage. Chatter buzzes from mouths creating a slight hum. It’s almost time.
Once Doug and Ilya step onto the stage, the crowd erupts. Wolf-hat has danced her way closer to the VIP section, as eager as the rest of the audience. Doug is still wearing his camo cap and plaid shirt with his sleeves rolled up. The lights above the stage shift from red to blue to purple. Images of his album artwork are projected on the screens behind him, among other shapes and patterns. Both Doug and Ilya’s shadows are cast onto the screens, their movements in tune.
“Moog: Another Dimension,” Ilya’s shirt reads—their presence certainly exerts a distant being.
Although Doug has a table full of equipment in front of him, his hands are focused on his Livid instrument. The MIDI controller glows as he twists and turns knobs to his liking. Soft voices sing over guitar notes and piano tunes. Ilya plays sweet melodies with his electric violin, barely audible over Doug’sheavy bass lines.
As far as the eye can see, luminous hands are waving in the air—but the bodies they belong to are shrouded in darkness. Jackets and backpacks are thrown all over the edge of the stage, including that of the young man who encouraged people to dance. He’s still dancing in the front, sweaty but satisfied. Wolf-hat is even closer to the stage, dancing harder than ever; her paws are moving this way and that. A glimmer of LED lights shines from the back of the club.
Across the room, another girl plays with an LED light stick. She grooves as she wraps her arms around her body. The stick floats next to her as if she is performing magic using her hands and dance moves, all immersed in the music.
With every break in the set, people scream and holler, rejoicing. A motley of images flashes behind Doug and Ilya. At one point Doug looks like he’s on fire. Then, with a creepy man in a biochemical suit dancing on the screens behind them, Doug twists his final knobs, Ilya plays a few last strings, and the show is over.
Within five minutes the crowd rushes to the coat check at the back of the club. Wolf-hat disappears. The LED girls are giving their rave moves one last go. With one fell swoop the dance floor is empty, and half the people are gone.
The artists and their crew are regrouping backstage. Some of them are slightly drunk, but jolly nonetheless. “Congratulations!” and hugs are exchanged. Members of the Brain Trust remain, taking care of business after the show.
A successful concert is one in which people walk out the front door with smiles planted on their faces and sweat dripping from their bodies. No one is hurt; no one is angry. After 12:30 a.m., early Monday morning, fans at the Middle East willingly, or grudgingly, returned to their former selves with a distinct memory of a shared experience.