- Sasha (left) and Digweed: Get under their trance.
When the Delta Heavy tour's two buses and semi trailer pull up to the Agora, the first thing unloaded will be the speakers.
Lots of speakers.
Next comes the lighting -- everything from everyday spotlights to elaborate laser rigs worth more than your mortgage. After that come the video projectors, along with a couple of cinema-sized screens and a pair of laptops to coordinate the visuals. Finally, two Technics turntables will appear -- the dual spinning hearts that pump life into the tour.
"This is one of the biggest, highest-profile electronic music and DJ tours that has gone on," says Brian Conti, head of Cleveland-based Sphere Productions, which is handling local promotion for Delta Heavy, the showcase of U.K. trance kingpins Sasha and Digweed. "It's a complete multimedia experience that they're trying to present, rather than just Paul Oakenfold going from gig to gig to gig, flying in and playing at a nightclub."
Of course, DJs have toured that way for years, usually flying to six or seven cities in a span of two weeks, taking nothing but a case of records and a pair of headphones along for the trip. Some DJs, like Kid Koala and Z-Trip, have hit the road for month-long bus tours, opening for platinum-selling bands like Radiohead and Linkin Park or playing roving festivals like last year's Area:One. But in most cases, the DJs seem to be an afterthought, relegated to opening time slots and left at the mercy of uninterested rock fans who can't wait to see their guitar-slinging heroes in action. On the Area:One tour, even DJ Carl Cox, a revered figure among techno fans, had to settle for a late-afternoon set without the benefit of stage lights or soundchecks.
But Sasha and Digweed won't be sharing the Delta Heavy bill with rock or rap acts. The tour, like the wildly successful club gig they once shared in New York, is all theirs.
"We really thought about 'How can we take things to the next level?'" says John Digweed. "And this tour is something that we came up with." For two of the industry's biggest names, the tour was also born out of necessity, after the plug was pulled on their only steady gig in America.
Sasha and Digweed each started DJing at small clubs around England in the late '80s. The two met at the prestigious club Renaissance in Mansfield. Sasha's reputation had spread throughout the early '90s, and club owners in Spain, Israel, Australia, Norway, and even Australia were asking him to play. Meanwhile, Digweed had been promoting his own monthly club night, called Bedrock, in Bournemouth. Bedrock grew steadily in popularity, and by 1998, it moved to Heaven, one of London's largest clubs.
In Bedrock's early days, Digweed invited Sasha to play, and through their occasional gigs together, they developed great chemistry. Since then, they have remained close partners, releasing several acclaimed mix CDs together in the mid- and late '90s, including the Northern Exposure series.
Both live and in studio, the two favor a blend of progressive house and trance, using tracks with deep house beats, trancey bass riffs, and twinkling piano and keyboard melodies. Their club-gig habit of trading duties on the decks allows them to play through till morning, building from sultry, seductive moods early to more ethereal, often psychedelic climaxes later on. The steady rise, track by track, pushes clubgoers toward rhythmic nirvana in the process.
"Spontaneous DJing is what we enjoy," Digweed says. "That's where we get the vibe from. We get really excited about the fact that one of us will pick out a record and mix it with something else, and you think, 'Wow, I wouldn't have thought of doing that,' so that raises the other one's game to try and do something extra-special with the next set. I think the crowd can feel that energy out of the DJ booth."
American crowds were slow to warm to the duo; still, Sasha and Digweed regularly flew to the States for one-off appearances throughout the early '90s. A 1994 appearance at Simon's in Orlando united them with DJ Jimmy Van M, who has been one of their greatest U.S. allies ever since. With the aid of Van M's Balance Promote agency, Sasha and Digweed became two of the first DJs to hold down a trans-Atlantic residency, with monthly engagements at New York City's legendary club Twilo, starting in 1996.
By 2000, the Twilo nights had become such a hit that the 3,000-capacity club regularly had to turn away thousands at the door. Sasha and Digweed's success at Twilo led other European DJs to take up similar residencies in America, but the club had a reputation for drug use and was shut down by the city in May 2001. Sasha and Digweed were left without a steady U.S. gig.
"When we first started doing the Twilo residency, there wasn't this whole influx of European DJs," says Digweed. "With Twilo shutting down, it was like 'Well, if we want to raise the bar again, we need to take what was going on at Twilo around the country.'"
But going from a successful monthly club night in New York to a full-scale nationwide tour seems less like raising the bar than snapping it in two. After all, there are plenty of bands packing New York City concert halls who still can't fill the Agora Ballroom, let alone the Agora Theatre. But Digweed seems unconcerned with questions of turnout, even with scheduled tour stops in Albany, Spokane, and Boise -- towns not exactly brimming with Twilos of their own. He's confident that the mix CDs he and Sasha crank out almost annually have earned die-hard fans across the country.
"For us, it's the challenge of playing somewhere new where you haven't played before, and you've got those people's expectations that you've got to live up to," Digweed says. "I think that's good for a DJ, because it keeps you on your toes and it keeps you focused on what you need to be doing and why you're doing it. Sasha and myself both rise to the occasion, because we both love that challenge."