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Habit forming? 

Portishead's DJ Andy Smith plays to high expectations

Earthlink.Live, June 2 -- It wasn't really a rave crowd gathered Saturday night to see DJ Andy Smith, and it wasn't really a club crowd. Actually, it wasn't really a crowd at all. Numbering maybe three dozen, the audience at Earthlink.Live (formerly Center Stage) nestled comfortably in their habitat while the sounds of warm, smooth funk led up to the main event.

It's not hard to feel comfortable and warm at Earthlink.Live, normally a concert venue, with all its smooth curves. Following the arc of the bar/hallway, the right wall is etched with intimate, shadowy alcoves, while sconces and mirrors dot the left. Velvet upholstery, soft curtains and even vinyl tapestries cover surfaces hard and soft, as muted light shines down from mosaic fixtures. The sleek, sweeping lobby -- breathing to the downtempo beat of a DJ near the entrance -- feels as lush and sensual as any of the city's finest atmospheres. The space could be mistaken for a club were it not for the huge theater with stadium seating just on the other side of several sets of double doors.

Inside those double doors, sneakers and high heels alike rest on the backs of plentiful seating as soft focus multi-colored spotlights scan the empty dance floor. It's the second night of the inaugural "Habit," a new monthly DJ event to be held at Earthlink.Live. Friday night hosted Chicago DJ Gene Farris -- a contemporary of DJs such as Miguel Migs and Derrick Carter -- who mixes classic disco-influenced house with a deep, funky San Francisco twist. Deep house, along with downtempo, has become the sound du jour for the city's sophisticated nightspots. Across town events such as Karma's "Skin Tight" offer similar nights for the black stretch pants crowds. But Saturday at Earthlink.Live offers something much more rare, more raw; something different, something looser, something more Black than for the black pants clad.

Promptly at midnight, headliner Andy Smith ambles up to the tables with a crate of uncut hip-hop gems ready to go under the surgical needle. To some, it may seem funny that a man from Britain would be so enthusiastic about American inner cities' finest, but to those who know Smith as Portishead's touring DJ -- or those lucky enough to have peeped his funk-encrusted mix 1998 CD, The Document -- it makes perfect sense.

Towering on the stage in a black T-shirt behind a wall of white-draped tables and a sea of softly flickering candles, Smith begins by trading off with touring and production partner, DJ Scott Hendy. The way the two weave tracks says they have done this several times before. Maybe not for so few people (or maybe so), but they don't seem to care. They play off each other on four turntables, speaking in scratches and body language, heads bobbing as skate videos and kung-fu movies are projected across them.

The sound in Earthlink.Live's theater is crisp and loud as Smith and Hendy drop uptempo cuts far removed from Portishead's noir-shrouded melancholy, but the speakers crackle with the familiar warm of worn vinyl known to all. Smith seems the more centered one, concerned with juggling the beat, while Hendy does his best to proverbially "fuck shit up" with some crab scratches and rewinds. But after an extended tandem intro set Hendy wanders offstage, leaving Smith to keep the crowd riveted (to their seats), though Hendy comes back from time to time to cut it up over some pitched-up Beasties Boys and other assorted tracks.

Smith drops 12-inch and 45 singles down on the turntables, pulling out a wide selection of hip-hop and funk spanning the '60s to the '90s. James Brown, Xzibit, A Tribe Called Quest and so many others sit (like the crowd) next to each other. It looks like Smith rolls his eyes almost as many times as he changes records, but he keeps on loosely mixing, pumping his fist on beat while crouching behind the tables selecting records. Soon it's obvious he owns two copies of almost everything, as he extends every other song by cutting back and forth between the two tables, building tension by concentrating on a beat till he lets the break crest.

Smith's sound is tight, and his selection highly pleasing, but unfortunately, the crowd also is tied to their seats tightly. Thankfully, despite the extremely low turnout, Earthlink.Live has more DJ events planned, the next being held July 27 featuring H-Foundation. Let's hope more folks will check out the space and just sitting won't be Habitual.

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