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Music Review: Sasha – Live At Avalon

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Recorded live during the closing night of his Fundacion residency in Los Angeles, DJ Sasha took the unprecedented step of bringing a fully-licensed (see: non-bootleg) live recording of his set immediately to his fans. Partnering with Instant Live (in a first for both parties), concert-goers could pick up the release the night of the show. The recording is now available, at least for a limited time, to the general public.

Instant Live has delivered a first to the dance community with this actual available-after-the-show mixed DJ set, and it's hard to imagine a better man behind the decks than Sasha. He is the artful surgeon of DJs, by bringing creatively balanced, as well as technically sure, mixes to the floor. He's a master of his craft, and an able leader. Even though he's bound to include several different styles within any given set, it's all so well put together that you don't mind branching out a bit.

Live At Avalon can be seen as a release sitting somewhere between a piece of ancillary product and the next Sasha record. Its association with his Fundacion sets ties it to his previous release by the same name, but the content and direction of the set calls for it to be considered on its own a bit more.

Trying to describe the style of music for Sasha is both tiring and freeing. Tiring because, where do you start? As one of the lead innovators within dance music, he gathers, remixes and twists various artists and styles to do his bidding. With other DJs you get to conveniently use nice labels like “breaks” or “trance” or “hard house” or “whatever subgenre just sprang up last night that most people haven't heard before.”

With Sasha you can pretty much only say that at different times he'll use all of the above, but probably not in the way you'd most expect. His style is more akin to travel. It journeys, it road-trips, it does some sight-seeing. It doesn't just sit in a pounding club all night. It may take in something a bit more cinematic and epic, which could very well crescendo to a frantic chase scene before settling back down with a nice martini and engaging conversation. It lives.

That could be frustrating for some who just need wallpaper music for “dance” occasions. But it's obvious that Sasha has bigger goals in mind. No offense to your party, of course, but Sasha is not your trained DJ monkey.

Which is why I don't mind at all that CD1 starts off… slow. In fact, the set creeps in from nowhere for the first couple of minutes before finally, and gradually, starting off with Booka Shade's “Night Falls.” The song is more likely to encourage you to buy her a drink than it is to ask her to dance. He'll get there, don't worry. But remember, we're taking a journey. There's plenty of time. The minimal tech-house that largely populates the release gradually builds and rolls and bubbles, and is somehow made more lush by Sasha's deft manipulation. It's slow and measured, but once your surrender some headspace to the sound, it will suck you in.

CD2 is probably the more balanced half of the set. By this point Sasha has settled into a slick, addictive groove that starts off quick and knows exactly where it wants to go (and maybe accelerates a bit because it only has an hour left to get there). It's a little more of a progressive set, although with some distinctive Sasha flair. Nils Noa's “Monkeybreak” is especially nice at kicking off an extended string of engaging material, which seems to reach an energetic peak with “Espoo? Rose” by Tim Deluxe.

The overall sound is going somewhere, and I can't exactly put my finger on what you'd call it. The easiest reference might be to say the distance his style traveled to a more “earthy” techno sound from Involver to Fundacion is equal to the distance it keeps going beyond that to Live At Avalon. In fact, for my money, I would also say it's better than the proper Fundacion release.

But if you're looking for huge anthems in a set, you may be disappointed here. Sasha is very keen on selecting more underground fare, as well as reworking material to suit his purpose. In truth, I was unfamiliar with a large percentage of the set, which was probably a good thing, as it helped to free me from coming in with a lot of unnecessary preconceptions.

About the only real complaint I have about the set is in reference to its length. At a “real” club night (as opposed to the recorded club night), you're going to have a DJ spin for a few hours. That's obviously a bit too long for a manageable CD release. But this collection feels like a portion of a longer evening. Sasha's talent is obvious, and his sound is distinctive and tight on even this legitimately live effort.

But listening to this mix feels a lot like only reading chapters four through nine of a great book. You get a sense of the story, and you can still enjoy the skill with which it's put together. But you miss the feeling of context, and you lose any sense of resolution. It's still quite an enjoyable release, but I suppose there is something to be said for planned live records as well.

The product itself is actually higher quality than I was expecting. Although just CD-Rs, they are still professionally labeled and housed in full-color sleeves containing original photographs on one side, and a scant amount of thanks and other such copy on the reverse. A tracklisting is conspicuously absent, since DJ sets tend to contain a lot of “on the fly” selections. Instead, the package lists a reserved website address where one would be able to download the final set list after the fact. The two CD sleeves are encased in a more rugged cardboard shell. All in all, the presentation is top notch, so if you were hesitant about picking it up due to it being just a burned live set, rest assured that it's very slick and feels just like any other major release.

Sonically, the set is very well done. Of course, it would have had to have been recorded straight from the board, but they've obviously done this kind of thing before, and the result is a well-balanced and clean mix.

I mentioned the distinction of this being available at the show in order to differentiate it from a lot of other “live” sets that are available on disc. It's hard to beat the energy you get from an actual crowd, but many of those recordings seem a little too planned, with drops perfectly timed out and somehow magically fitting on the space of a single CD. Which is what makes this Avalon set so refreshing, but is also what drags it down at points. You can actually hear that it's real.

There aren't necessarily “mistakes” but there are things that are usually edited out of other mixes before they hit your record store. Like lulls between fades, where you keep a beat going trying to match up the next record before a cross fade (especially prevalent on John Tejada's “Forced Fiction”), as well as a complete break at the beginning of disc two, due to an apparent mechanical failure at the club that night.

These aren't necessarily bad things, as they're perfectly normal parts of what will happen during an actual live event. But this is still a recording. You're not actually there, amidst the mass of bodies with energy to burn. You're at home, or in your car, or glued to your iPod, so you notice things you probably would have been distracted from during the live set.

Overall, though, Live At Avalon is a worthy addition to any music library that includes an interest in innovative dance music. Sasha continues to develop his craft and brings a truly unique sensibility to the scene. The release isn't without its share of flaws, but especially given its nature as a first of its kind, it's an impressive effort.

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About David R Perry