Back in 1997, electronic dance music was supposed to be the next big thing. Underworld was already a veteran act, having been around since 1989. A decade after electronica never quite happened, the British trio is still a potent force. Their two-hour show Sunday night was an ebullient, celebratory perf. They’re an electronic act with more than just dancing on their mind; they also want to move your mind.
Yes, most of the sounds were synthesized and the band embraces the thudding, electronic aspects of their music; one of the recurring images on the video screen behind them was Rich Smith and DJ Darren Price’s hands on the mixing board that is Underworld’s main instrument. There are moments of humanity and improvisation as well.
During an early interlude after “Crocodile,” Smith and Price layered various beats and loops around a high-hat sample, creating a teasing push and pull, ratcheting up the tension until it careened into a skittery “Juanita.” It’s a sly updating of such classic mid-’70s records as Bowie’s “Station To Station,” Eno’s early solo releases, and the Krautrock of Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk and Georgio Moroder’s work with Donna Summer (“King of Snakes” main riff is a harsh, pared down lift from “I Feel Love” ).
But most striking element of Underworld’s show is singer/guitarist Karl Hyde, one of the most compelling frontmen working today. In addition to his sly vocals and mad dervish energy, he provides something not usually associated with dance music: humor. Like the title of their upcoming Side One Recordings release, “Oblivion With Bells,” it’s a particularly dry British sensibility, slipping odd asides or nonsequiturs into his amped up rush of images.
“Take a bite,” he implores in “Luetin,” the show’s opener, “it tastes like chicken.” Leaping around the stage, bouncing on the balls of his feet, wearing a glittery jacket and white shoes over a black pants and T-shirt that makes him look like a revved up Michael Jackson, he easily outshines the silly inflatable tubes (which one imagines are supposed to look like a glow stick Stonehenge but more closely resemble giant tampons); a human perpetual motion machine, he is easily his own best special effect, a performer whose appeal is timeless.
Paul Oakenfeld opened, and with the exception of a song where he was joined by a trio of oud, tabla and double violin, his 45-minute set felt like a dated rehash.
Underworld plays Gotham’s Central Park Summerstage on Friday.