Paul Oakenfold needs only a crate of records and a few turntables to whip a crowd of thousands into a sweating, ecstatic mob. Among ravers, he's Elvis, a pioneer in the club scene that sprang to pill-fueled life in Britain in the late '80s and then thumped its way around the globe. For well over a decade, he's been concocting seamless, hypnotic nights of dance music. His mixes are regularly packaged into albums that knock against each other on the electronica charts.
But recently this 36-year-old London native has set his sights beyond the modest-size universe he now bestrides. To date, his fame has rested on his skills at spinning, playing and renovating other people's music, which will make you a hero to the velvet-rope set but won't fill arenas or win a slice of the far vaster pop market.
For that you need a band and some four-minute songs.
Oakenfold brought both for the concluding half of his show at the 9:30 club Wednesday night, which took some guts. By performing with live musicians, Oakenfold risks alienating the electronica faithful, to whom instruments are a sort of Dylan-goes-electric heresy. But the pop fans he's now targeting might be skeptical, too, especially if they catch on to this peculiarity of Oakenfold's live act: As busy as he looks when his band gets going, it's unclear what -- if anything -- he's actually doing up there.
Oakey, as he's known, started the night catering to the rave set. During the first half of his two-hour show, he stood alone at the edge of the stage behind three turntables, the ringmaster at the helm of a one-man circus. A maestro of pacing, Oakenfold segues listeners from beatless, suspenseful interludes that end abruptly in split seconds of loaded silence and then burst into strobe-lit crescendos. The tempo owes something to action movies that lurch from one breathtaking car chase to another, with just enough downtime for audiences to collect their senses and get ready for more carnage.
Visually, though, there's not a lot there. Oakenfold, who was dressed in a camouflage baseball hat and black T-shirt, looks like an accountant at a tractor pull. When he got really excited, he'd point in the air and rock back and forth a little. Unless you're awed by his legend -- and most everyone at 9:30 seemed to be -- watching him slap records on and off turntables with earphones wedged against his neck was pretty dull.
After a 10-minute break, the curtain parted to reveal a three-piece band: drummer John Tonks, guitarist-bass player Tim Hutton and Oakenfold, who stood center stage amid enough blinking equipment to steer the Starship Enterprise. Most of the songs were taken from "Bunkka," which is billed as Oakenfold's first album of original material, and is an appealingly daring hybrid of rap, hip-hop and electronica. Vocals for the album -- Oakenfold doesn't sing -- were handled by a variety of guest stars, including Ice Cube and Grant Lee Phillips.
For the show, Oakenfold synced the already-recorded vocals to his band and then synced videos, played on a massive screen, to everything else. On the show's opener, "Time of Your Life," Perry Farrell, formerly of Jane's Addiction, appeared in a thrift shop outfit and seemed to dance around Stonehenge, among other locales. During "Starry-Eyed Surprise," the album's cheery, rap-influenced single, Shifty Shellshock of Crazy Town dropped by. The music mixed the jet-pack beats that are Oakenfold's stock in trade with conventional song structures: verses and choruses.
No matter what, purists will sniff at this experiment in crossbreeding, but songs like "Ready Steady Go" have a gallop and industrial oomph that are hard to resist. What's less clear is whether pop fans would consider this a concert -- you know, the ageless spectacle of men and women making music with their hands. Tonks did his part, flailing at the cymbals and keeping up with all of "Bunkka's" whipsaw speeds. Hutton's guitar seemed to matter less, or at least it was a lot harder to hear.
And Oakenfold? He spent the night twiddling dials and scurrying from machine to machine, as if fine-tuning a moon launch. None of it seemed to have the slightest impact on the sound. Then, during "Starry-Eyed Surprise," he took out a record, cued it up on a turntable and . . . nothing. If he was scratching -- shifting it back and forth under a needle for snippets of noise -- it was inaudible.
Focus on him long enough and none other than Britney Spears comes to mind. She lip-syncs. Oakenfold, when he isn't DJ-ing, work-syncs -- or it sure seems so, anyway. On the liner notes to "Bunkka" he is credited as a producer, mixer and co-writer, which suggests he doesn't play any instruments. No biggie for a DJ, but a hurdle for anyone who wants to hit the big time in a band.