Your first live show is always a turning point. It says, This isn’t just something we do in the basement anymore. You’re probably nervous, so maybe it’s best to just invite ten close friends, the ones who are always happy to support your indulgences and won’t mind if you forget how to play. Hercules & Love Affair, the new, highly touted, shiny disco jewel in the crown of DFA Records, did not have such a luxury. For their first show ever — on May 17 at Studio B — was in front of a sold-out crowd, at an all-night event sponsored by downtown fashion force Opening Ceremony.
Hercules’s self-titled album is the brainchild of New York DJ Andrew Butler. He roped in a number of collaborators, including Tim Goldsworthy of DFA to produce and Antony of Antony and the Johnsons to sing. Despite the live instrumentation, the record doesn’t come off like a band playing together but like polished dance compositions that happen to feature humanoid musicians.
Thus, the live performance wasn’t only remarkable for being a grand unveiling for the next phase in the rising wave of New York disco, but also as a testing ground for the tricky translation from studio composition to live experience. Ever since 1974, when Frank Farian, the German svengali later responsible for Milli Vanilli, composed and sang all the vocals on a cheesey track called “Do You Wanna Bump?” and then hired performers to act as the band Boney M, there’s been a need for disco masterminds to make their lab creations come to life.
Not to say by any stretch that the Hercules & Love Affair live-show posse are any kind of contract labor like in Farian’s case. Far from it. It’s a ten-person dance army, with Butler heading up a four-man rhythm section, plus two horn players, two singers, and, very important, two vogue dancers. That’s important because, flanking the stage with incessant strutting and undulations, they turned it from a show into an event. Their very presence said Studio 54, Larry Levan, David Mancuso, and so on — the great and until recently rather ghettoized heritage of New York disco.
For the most part, the translation process was a success, and the show made it clear why listening to any kind of dance music on your iPod speakers at home is kind of like taking a shower with a raincoat on: The sheer surging physicality is lost. While the corporeality of Hercules & Love Affair’s glitzy, flamboyant stomp was in full effect, however, some details in the group’s dense compositions did get lost in the ruckus, be it some of the busier horn lines or the beautiful shape of the long, winding vocal line that takes flight in their terrific single, “Blind.”
The extended-groove outros were without exception both effective and abruptly ended. With time, maybe Butler’s group can take a cue from LCD Soundsystem, the Zeus of the DFA Parthenon, and gather the courage to let the compositions’ gathered steam fuel the funk train into uncharted territory.