The High Contrast Band, O2 Institute 2, Birmingham - review

The canned music faded, the lights dimmed and a woman with a microphone made her way onto the stage.

The crowd in front of her, sensing what was about to come, began cheering as she was followed by a small, bespectacled man wearing an oversized varsity jacket, who made his way to the centre of the stage and took up his own microphone behind a complicated synthesiser rig.

Surveying the rows of people watching him, he broke out in a sheepish grin and said a few words, struggling to make himself heard over the noise, which had already risen to a fever pitch.

Then, he stopped speaking, pressed a button, and the earth shook.

Drum and bass icon High Contrast had started his set at the O2 Institute in Birmingham, and it was never going to be a quiet entrance. The hundreds of people who came to see him and his band knew what to expect though - the second his deafening opening track started they were jumping, matching the uncompromising bassline that no doubt left most of them with ringing in their ears for days.

High Contrast - real name Lincoln Barrett - has been filling floors and straining speaker systems for almost two decades with his extensive repertoire of drum and bass originals, plus a catalogue of bootleg remixes that any producer would be proud to call their own.

But the Welshman was not the only one performing last night. He lead the High Contrast Band, a five-piece outfit (including himself on keyboard/synthesiser) that does drum and bass differently.

Taking the primarily electronic genre into a live format is not a new idea (Pendulum, Sigma and Wilkinson have all swapped software for instruments) and Barrett was a relative latecomer to the formula.

The High Contrast Band celebrated its third birthday last week and the group is clearly comfortable with the dynamic by now. Two soulful singers played off each other to add an unmistakeably human touch to the tracks that once existed solely in Barrett's head and on a set of machines, while a guitarist and drummer completed the live sound.

Though an unassuming figure on stage, Barrett has been in the game long enough to know how to keep a crowd engaged and let his music do the talking. The band flitted between his older, more liquid funk-inspired standards and the more recent singles that rely more on extended vocal performances, with hardly a second to think.

His fabled remixes were brought to the fore too - the band came together near the end of the set to perform a version of The Who's Baba O'Riley that almost defied explanation - how do you get an underground room of ravers to dance to The Who?

With the band, Barrett pulled off a remarkable kind of reverse-engineering: when he was an unknown and trying to make his name two decades ago he would scour old standards as well as films to find catchy, obscure vocal clips before chopping and splicing them into his tracks in the unmistakable way that made him famous.

Last night he led the live band to breathe new life into those same tracks, playing the melodies on synthesiser with the two singers emphatically bringing the vocal clips to life.

It was a surreal experience hearing the unforgettable samples from 'Racing Green' or 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang' come from singers recreating them live on a stage rather than a machine after all this time, but a thrilling one.

Barrett is one of the most experienced British drum and bass producers still recording new music - his debut album 'True Colours' came out in 2002 - and his longevity was perhaps reflected in the mix of ages in the crowd. On one hand were the younger, more energetic ravers who didn't stop moving all night. On the other hand were those with salt-and-pepper beards who no doubt had to rush home to pay the babysitter after the set.

Barrett's new single 'Snare the Blame', released on the day of the band's performance, did get a run out although it flew under the radar compared with some of his more bombastic tracks.

Hometown girl Frenetic was the supporting act, warming the crowd up with more than an hour of fairly heavy, no-frills drum and bass that went down well. By the time her set finished the room was packed and the crowd was in the mood to move. They didn't stop until the lights came up.

I was sceptical of the High Contrast Band when I heard of the idea, wondering whether too many cooks would spoil the broth by over-complicating songs I loved. But having seen the band give drum and bass classics a new lick of paint, I realise that was never the point.

Having a group of five humans come together to make an established High Contrast track work as something more dynamic and organic in the live performance space is a new phenomenon, and an exciting one at that.

My knees are still creaking and my ears are still ringing, but they are reminders of a genuinely unique experience. I can't wait for the next opportunity.

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