Photo by Sasha Geffen
Darkside will only have one album to their name, and it’s not even the best thing they ever did. On tape, Nicolas Jaar and his partner in crime, Dave Harrington, rendered their jazzy compositions with perfect slickness. Live, they set off bombs.
I got caught in their shrapnel early this year at Chicago’s winter festival Tomorrow Never Knows. The duo headlined the Metro that evening, but I couldn’t tell you how long their set ran. Their songs don’t mark off easy intervals of three, four, five minutes. They stretch and loom as Jaar builds his beats from behind a semicircle of electronics. Here’s this guy, hunched over and steely-eyed, just stacking up a fortress around himself, all but blowing out the subwoofers with his analogs. And the only one to counter him, the only other person on stage, is a guy with a guitar.
Here’s something I learned that night: Guitars aren’t cool anymore. Not in the way they used to be, at least. Bands like Diarrhea Planet embrace their instrument’s uncoolness, layering four (!) electrics on top of each other to push party rock to its most bombastic extremes. It works because anything less ridiculous would fall flat. Rock guitarists can make great music, but they don’t ooze that impenetrable air of cool anymore. That era ended the minute Gibson cast a mini Les Paul in plastic and slapped on colored buttons and a PlayStation hookup.
But knob-twiddlers? They’ve taken the throne, and Jaar is one of the engineers who gives the electronic underground its shine. He radiates cool, and Harrington soaks it right up and bounces it back at him, hollowing out an echo chamber of vibes. I’ve never seen two people be so un-self-conscious on stage together. They never looked at the audience. They looked at their gear and then stared at each other with bullet eyes, each building off the figures that the other would twist out of his instrument.
Darkside won’t happen again, though I know whatever these two musicians do next will be worth following. They were a flash, a year and a half of perfect collaboration, of “jazz” in its best sense: heavy, improvised, dangerous, and a little bit playful. They made festivalgoers dance at midday with alien pulses and minor key guitar solos. That doesn’t happen every year.