The Saturday crowd at the Phoenix was diverse to say the least: ravers at the front dancing with abandon, barely legal students excited to be at a 19+ show and a substantial number of the older, 35-40+ demographic. Considering the headliner, this latter group, who may seem out of place at most Toronto DJ sets, were right at home. DJ Shadow, whose new album The Mountain Will Fall has gained both critical and fan praise, has been creating music for 25 years. On the 20th anniversary of his debut studio album Endtroducing, new and old fans alike came together to watch the master at work.
Before the main attraction came opener Noer the Boy. Initially I was underwhelmed, with the sensation that this artist was interchangeable with so many like him: basic beats, few impactful samples, not much energy. Very “okay”. However as his set progressed, others joined the few unashamed dancers in front of the stage until the entire crowd was swaying to the rhythm. Not revolutionary, no, and a bit repetitive, but Noer the Boy did enough to get the crowd moving and loose, proving his merit as a successful opener.
When DJ Shadow finally arrived on stage, the cheers were deafening. It’s been a while since he’s played the city, and he says, “going on 5 years since I did a show like this,” this being a solo set playing only his own music. Due to his years of experience and numerous collaborations I wondered if this performance would have a specific focus like the new album, older music, or maybe a specific theme, but of course I was wrong. Why limit himself to one section when he can show off the whole range?
He opened with the title track of his new album, The Mountain Will Fall, an odyssey of sound set to elaborate animated space visuals. Three screens backed DJ Shadow, creating a very cinematic feel. Throughout his career he has maintained a focus on the melding of art and sound and it came to full force with the on stage visuals. “The Mountain Will Fall” transitioned midway from a soundtrack-like story into a more danceable beat while maintaining the spacey instrumental backing, a true crowd pleaser and smart way to kick off the show.
What followed was a slice of DJ Shadow’s creative process and range, transitioning from upbeat mixes like “You Can’t Go Home Again” to more impactful tracks like the societal commentary “Midnight in a Perfect World”, putting on display grainy visuals that still hold impact today. On this song, and many others, Shadow brought out a calling card to his own history and the classics of DJing: live scratching. The technique, employed not with showiness but as a new level of sound blending with his beats, enhanced his stance as an established act. He is clearly nothing less than a bonafide pro. Other details that brought an element of extra effort to his performance were the drum board and symbol attached to his setup which he played live, both showmanship and sound bringing more to the table than a pre-recorded drum track ever could.
While the crowd and DJ Shadow alike loved the loud, let-loose rhythms like his Run The Jewels collaboration “Nobody Speaks”, complete with political commentary-ridden music video across his backing screens, the quieter moments held equal power. Shadow said he prefers shows like this where he can play for hours rather than the typical hour set he’s given at festivals. One of the reasons, he continued, was the opportunity to play “deeper stuff”. It makes sense; at festivals, most attendees are there to have fun and get loud, hopping from artist to artist. In a room full of people focused only on him, the comfort level was enough that he could share songs like “Listen”, whose lyrics mournfully told the rapt audience, “You try but there’s never a time just to listen. It won’t hurt you anymore”.
The power of a performer who can bring an audience along with them through not only danceable beats but also political messages, introspective moments and art-laden lyrics cannot be undersold. DJ Shadow is living proof that artists who define themselves as DJs are not to be underestimated. With a staying power of over 20 years and a fan base spanning generations, it was an honour to see DJ Shadow doing what he does best, and to be a part of the crowd loving every minute of it.