If F. Scott Fitzgerald was right and the mark of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time, there were some first-rate minds on the bill of the Hollywood Bowl’s second annual World Electronica show. Briskly paced evening showcased four acts who make music that reflects the sounds of a specific place while remaining open to all manner of outside influences. The result was some first-rate music.
Tijuana’s Nortec Collective played by far the most impressive set of the night. Its hourlong perf had all the boisterous energy and shadowy danger of the border town from which it hails. The steel drums and horn sections of Norteno music jauntily parade past streets where drug deals go down. Porous borders allow bits and pieces of American pop to join the mix; a tuba doubles a bassline, and up to five laptops chatter among each other over traditional Mexican beats. The vivid street scenes are accompanied by impressive visuals — shots of Tijuana so intensely oversaturated and oddly composed they turn surreal.
The strangeness was not confined to the screens when Nortec brought Alan Parsons to the stage. Once the shock wears off, his presence made clear how elastic and absorptive Nortec’s music is. He brought a prog rocker’s sense of pacing and drama to “Tampopo” as his fizzy, spacey keyboards gave way to an acid house groove.
Performing a witty set that placed a smaller shell inside the bowl’s much ballyhooed new shell, headliner Crystal Method also had some prog rock influences– in their case it’s Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland trade the gaseous pomp of the ’70s warhorses for the bounce of house music and the grinding intensity of post-grunge rock; on the recent “Legion of Boom” (V2), the Crystal Method re-creates the hallucinatory starkness of the desert on a moonless night. The arid riff of “Born Too Slow” (built around a sample by former Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland) finds common ground with fellow desert dwellers Queens of the Stone Age, while Azam Ali, subbing for actress Mila Jovovich, brings a Middle Eastern ache to “I Know It’s You.” (Jovovich sings the song on the album.) But with the synthesizer squeals and swoops, it’s hard not to hear this music without being reminded of albums such as “Tarkus.”
Opening acts Sidestepper and Nitin Sawhney also found ways to mix cultures, albeit on a smaller scale. Colombia’s Sidestepper mixed salsa’s smooth heat with the gruff vocals of dancehall and the drive of funk. The effect was as refreshing as stepping into a cool smoky bar on a humid night. London’s Nitin Sawhney opened the evening on a quietly hypnotic note. Though the perf was announced as a DJ set, the most impressive part was the least electronic, as Sawhney mixed the live tabla playing with keyboards, acoustic guitars and looped Indian rhythms. He was accompanied by two pairs of dancers, one classically Indian, the other breakdancing. They were obviously meant to mirror Sawhney’s mix of sounds but ended up looking silly — a mistake none of the show’s other bands made.