Dekmantel Festival 2016: Five key performances

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  • On the Saturday of this year's Dekmantel Festival I heard a story about one of the festival's founders, Thomas Martojo, approaching Jeff Mills after the Detroit legend's performance the previous night. Mills is one of the key inspirations behind the entire Dekmantel operation, and he's closed the main stage at three of the Amsterdam festival's four editions so far. "Your music makes me feel like I'm a 15-year-old kid again," Martojo told Mills. This deep, sincere passion for electronic music is evident in every detail of Dekmantel Festival. It's there in the way the stages are set up, with excellent sound and pleasing aesthetic touches. (Did the Greenhouse stage really need that many plants? Probably not. But it looked amazing.) And it's there on the festival lineup, which is filler-free and puts local artists on an equal footing with international stars. Neither organisers nor festivalgoers seem to place much emphasis on headliners in the traditional sense. The three acts who closed the main stage at Amsterdamse Bos—Jeff Mills, Dixon and Motor City Drum Ensemble—are all big names, but if, say, you swapped in DJ Harvey for MCDE, or Robert Hood for Mills, it's doubtful many people would mind. And that's the thing about Dekmantel—the music is consistently wonderful across every stage, from the first record of the day to the last. This year's edition was its biggest yet, with the three-day festival at Amsterdamse Bos and Melkweg supplemented by an expanded opening day conference followed by live music showcases at venues on both sides of the IJ waterfront. Here are five of the key performances from across the weekend.
    Azymuth There were plenty of live sets to get excited about this year—dub legend Lee "Scratch" Perry's collaboration with Adrian Sherwood, for example, or New York punk-funk heroes ESG. On the opening night, Azymuth and Tony Allen performed at Tolhuistuin, near the EYE Film Institute. A jazz-funk band whose core members are approaching 70, Azymuth might seem like a surprising choice for Dekmantel, but they provided a feel-good start to the festival weekend. The band's drummer, Ivan Conti, took the crowd on a rhythmic rollercoaster, from slow jazz swishes to hard drum & bass-style thrashing. At one point someone screamed out for some samba, at which point Conti smiled and launched into a batucada-style drum solo. The set closed with "Jazz Carnival," the group's biggest hit, which saw the bass player remove his scarf to reveal a Dutch football strip before joining Conti on drums. A couple of hours later, Tony Allen, wearing black glasses and a hat that glittered under the stage lights, followed Azymuth's set and showed that he, like Conti, is one of the greatest drummers alive.
    Moodymann The sun was baking as Kenny Dixon Jr. got behind the booth on Friday afternoon, following a live set from Amp Fiddler. The Detroit DJ's set was perfectly tweaked to his surroundings in the Greenhouse, a semi-enclosed space whose pockets of shade are provided by lush tropical plants. He played Fred Wesley's "House Party" and proceeded to get on the mic—"What's happenin', Amsterdam?"—before working through a selection of classics. There was a seamless transition into Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and a sing-along airing of Ol' Dirty Bastard, while the rest of his set had him reaching into his record bag for tunes from the likes of George Clinton, The Doobie Brothers, Roy Davis Jr., Prince and Paranoid London.
    Hunee & Antal The first thing that Hunee did in his back-to-back session with Antal at Melkweg was slam Mary Clark's "Take Me I'm Yours" into his signature opening track by The Pointer Sisters. Starting out a set with this revived disco gem had an exhilarating effect on everyone in the room. Hunee soon had his shirt off, and both he and Antal successfully kept the crowd bouncing for the next four hours. (Antal later said he's "never seen that much energy" at Melkweg.) They threw down classics from the disco and house canon (Kerri Chandler's "On My Way" got two airings, the second time with the bass cut for the first minute or two) alongside curveballs like Chiwoniso's wonderful "Zvichapera." When the set finished around 7 AM, both the DJs and the crowd looked exhausted—it had been a long day, after all—but immensely happy.
    Robert Hood The UFO stage at Dekmantel is dedicated to techno. When the sun is shining it can be hard to drag yourself into a pitch-black, sweaty tent, but once you're in, the things that initially seemed off-putting—the heat, the darkness—complement the intensity of the music. Robert Hood's DJ set on Sunday was relentless and funky, veering through disco loops, rattling drum tracks and full-throttle vocal techno. The music was stomping, but Hood's quick mixing and sense of funk kept the energy levels at an absolute optimum. His own productions provided the special moments, the highlight being Floorplan's "We Magnify His Name." As the choir sang "For he is worthy," the crowd let out a roar and Hood raised his hands to the heavens.
    Motor City Drum Ensemble Though it's only been running for four years, some of Dekmantel's daytime stages already feel iconic. The Selectors stage, for example, has spawned its own spin-off festival. Motor City Drum Ensemble played the Selectors stage last year, but this time round he was billed for the Sunday evening closing set on the main stage, whose long LED screen looks magnificent once the sun goes down. Though MCDE is no stranger to this kind of environment—he played to a huge crowd at Nuits Sonores festival this year, and his closing set at Dimensions 2015 with Jeremy Underground is the stuff of legend—it still felt novel to see his silhouette bouncing from side to side in front of that screen as Sunday night rolled around. But he quickly proved he was up to the task, and some of his selections, like Andrés's "New For U," Logg's "You've Got That Something" and, most memorably, Teddy Pendergrass's "You Can't Hide From Yourself," proved that this shy crate-digger is more than capable of creating blockbuster moments.
    Photo credits / Bart Heemskerk - Azymuth, MCDE Duncan Jacob - All others Stephen Titmus contributed to this piece