Wicked 22 Year Anniversary
July 6, 2013
"Who here is from San Francisco??" Cue applause. "I just wanted to ask one more time, who here is from San Francisco? I came here all the way from England to play these records for you, so I just wanted to make sure we're all on the same page!" Thomas Bullock was DJing from the floor at Mighty, barking out hype to a packed house of old California party heads gathered at the venue to honor Wicked Soundsystem's 22nd year. "Thanks for keeping S.F. weird!"
The soundsystem jumped back to life, conjuring a booming and impossibly bass-heavy techno track from near-silence. Thomas beamed an insane smile as he flexed the volume to deafening levels. The kick drum pounded the room so hard that my eyes began to gently massage their sockets. The music was all low-end molasses -- "This doesn't sound very retro to me," I overheard from through the din. It was unexpected, his biggest chance so far, but considering his entire set followed a non-sequitur logic it didn't feel entirely out of place. Some on the floor rebelled, leaving to get a beverage or smoke a cigarette. More chose to remain, presumably to relish his track's brutal, low-frequency power. But as odd as it was at first, it wasn't long before people were back dancing with their hands in the air. It was a forgiving and fun crowd, with the kind of vibe that only seems to come from years spent dancing as a dedicated tribe.
Throughout the room, dancers pranced and made space, many wearing T-shirts bearing the crew's iconic logo. It was sweaty and crowded, but it was never uncomfortable. A man in an electric wheelchair rolled past me toward the center of the floor, accompanied by two dancing accomplices who made sure he was having as good a time as those more ambulatory. Behind the DJ pit, dancers spun around, while a team of visual artists led by the psychedelic light maestro Donovan operated a battery of serious machinery.
Projections painted the walls with a shifting skin of digital imagery: Jellyfish floated through apocalyptic scenes ripped from Japanese horror films. A subtitle read, "I was born after the nuclear holocaust." A demon bled from her eyes while pagan geometric shapes spun off, revealing ever more surreal landscapes. Donovan grabbed an arc light and began shining it at the massive disco ball suspended above. Bright beams of white reflected down through sheets of fog (created by both fog machines and people taking rips off e-cigarettes).
With a cheshire cat grin, Thomas lightened the mood by cutting hard from his murky joint into an off-the-wall selection that sounded like a '70s TV show theme. No mixing -- a borderline trainwreck, but nobody seemed to mind. This time ever more people were taken aback. He let it ride, and then executed a similarly wild transition into Todd Terry Project's "Weekend." Screams sounded from deep in the fray, strobes blinked off from high up on the pillars. He worked the volume, taking it to a whisper with an arrhythmic pulse that continued to catch everyone off guard. He pulled it out, letting the song quietly build to its chorus before slamming it back to an orgiastic distorted redline just in time to hear it scream, "Tonight it's party time, it's party time tonight!" His set was exhausting, but he took a lot of chances with his selections and techniques that made him incredibly fun to listen to. One minute it was "Jibaro" by Elkin and Nelson, then it was bleak acid accompanied by what sounded like a Spanish language auctioneer (trippy!). Each mix carried a moment of suspense: When he aced his mixes it caused a feeling of giddy euphoria to sweep the atmosphere. When he screwed up, there was euphoria too, though it was more due to the idiosyncrasies of his choices. "Is he really playing this right now? Whaaat!"
Then it was 4 a.m., and the crowd had sustained itself through the night. This was one of those rare parties at Mighty that would break the usual closing time and head well into the morning. Thomas' erratic playing had long been replaced by the more careful and restrained mixing of Jeno. This was probably for the best, as his style helped to angle the vibe towards the long haul, with loopy cuts of funk-laden breaks and tribal breakdowns that maintained a consistent energy level. The volume was also pulled back, letting chatter mingle with the soundtrack. From a certain vantage, you could also hear live percussion played from a troupe of conga players situated near the rear speakers.
I took a moment to let my feet rest and headed to the music-less chill-out lounge. Muffled thumping created an odd soundtrack to a scene of people lounging, eyes-closed and slumped over, in high back sofas. My friends and I decided it was time to go, but when we went back to the dancefloor we were coaxed to stay a little longer by an intensely psychedelic three-song passage that matched sparse tribal drums with an angelic rush of a vocal sample that bellowed, "voiiiceeesss." On our way out the door I saw DJ Markie making his way inside with a battered metal crate full of records. I'm still a little mad at myself that I didn't stick it out for his epic 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. slot.