Sustain-Release 2017: Five key performances

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  • There are lots of good things to say about Sustain-Release, the intimate, annual party that held its fourth edition this year. The music is deep, the crowd friendly and clued-in, the venue, a summer camp in Upstate New York, cozy and idyllic. But following my first time at the weekend-long party, my main takeaway was this: it's one of those rare events where just about every artist brings their A-game. From a promoter's standpoint, this is a subtle art. It's one thing to get a bunch of killer DJs in the same place at the same time. It's another to get the best out of them. The key, it seems, is creating a situation where the performers are having as much fun the crowd. In this sense, Sustain-Release joins the ranks of events like Freerotation and Labyrinth as a place where artists not only perform but soak up inspiration themselves and pour it into their own sets. The result is a program with an absurdly high strike rate, one that gives any other party around the world a run for its money. Meanwhile, the organizers very much bring their A-game, too, delivering something that's not just a killer party but a triumph for DIY events in general. Sustain-Release proves you can sell nearly 1,000 tickets with a lineup that draws mostly from its own community, without leaning too hard on artists from abroad. It shows how tight a DIY operation can be, running like clockwork even with makeshift bars on fold-out tables. And in the case of Aurora Halal, the event's de facto ringleader, it shows you can run a party for 36 hours while still finding time to put together a flawless two-hour techno set, and somehow manage to appear rested and upbeat all the while. Here are five key performances from across the weekend.
    Jayda G For most of the weekend, the main room at Sustain-Release was thickly clouded in fog, to the point that the crowd and the DJ couldn't see each other. (One artist told me he had to ask a friend in the booth how many people were in the room—the floor was packed.) For me this was one of the event's few missteps. With no clear link between performer and crowd, the dance floor in the main room felt a little flat compared to the raucous vortex that was the Bossa stage, where, for me, all but a few of the weekend's best moments took place. The main room was best before the fog rolled in, when it looked and felt like what it was: a basketball court. This old school vibe perfectly suited Turtle Bugg and Jayda G, the first two DJs on Friday night. Turtle Bugg finished with a few piano-heavy house classics, getting the first big cheers of the weekend. When Jayda took over, she brought the tempo way down, sliding into a low-slung groove that heated up slowly over her two-hour set, eventually swerving between strutting disco classics (First Choice's "Love Thang") and balmy house thumpers (the "Club Path Mix" of Jovanotti's "L'Ombelico Del Mondo"). It was the perfect soundtrack to what was happening on the dance floor: friends finding each other for the first time that weekend, smiling and beginning to feel loose. As the fog rolled in near the end of the set, the basketball court disappeared for good with Jayda G's final track: Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover."
    Akanbi When you find yourself at a party that bills artists according to their sound rather than their popularity, you realize how much is lost at bigger events, where acts tend to play in ascending order of fame. On the first night of Sustain-Release, the last set in the Bossa stage—arguably the best slot of the night—went to Akanbi, a Nigerian DJ based in New York who throws a party called Groovy Groovy. For me, he was the discovery of the weekend. Minor Science's excellent "Volumes" set the tone for a set that explored the outer reaches of club rhythms, swerving between mutant beats that defied categorization and the occasional bit of searing techno. A bit like Objekt or Call Super, he seemed unhampered by genre or tempo, easily navigating through a vast range of sounds in the course of his two hours. As the end neared, the tempo quickened, setting the stage for a finale that had the frenzied crowd pouring out their last ounce of energy: Tshetsha Boys' "Nwapfundla."
    Josey Rebelle As pool parties go, Sustain-Release's felt unique. The crowd there is a far cry from what you get on South Beach or Ibiza—tattoos were plentiful, Cannibal Corpse T-shirts not unheard of—but they nonetheless looked perfectly at home splashing around and sipping Aperol-Spritz. Following sets from Justin Cudmore and Octo Octa, the day's musical program was meant to end with Powder, but a delayed flight forced her to swap slots with Josey Rebelle, who'd originally been scheduled for late that night. This surprise arrangement worked out well. On Rinse FM, Rebelle is known for moving smoothly from mellow funk and disco to more high-energy club sounds. By the pool, she stayed firmly on the clubby side of the spectrum, but found impressive range within that framework, barreling through rowdy club cuts like Sejva's "Boys Say" and Mark Pritchard's collab with Ragga Twins, "1234." As the sun set went down, the evening chill chased everyone out of the pool, and the wet concrete in front of the decks filled with dancing bodies, while the rest of us watched from blankets on the grass nearby. Friday night had been great, but this felt like the moment Sustain-Release clicked—most specifically, for me, with the warm chords of Machine Woman's "Camille From OHM Makes Me Feel Loved."
    Powder Powder was among the most anticipated sets of the weekend, which is interesting for artist with a relatively light tour schedule and just a handful of records to her name. Even having never seen her, her allure was clear enough: real name Moko Shibata, Powder is a Japanese salary-woman who makes music to "exorcize her daily demons" from her job in a windowless Tokyo office. The one set I had heard from her was cosmic and gentle, but that night at Bossa she was much more thumping, rolling out one catchy and inscrutable groove after another. Subtle mixing tricks made it hard to tell exactly what was happening: the volume floated up and down, and at least once she circled back to a hook from a few records earlier. I don't think I recognized anything she played, but it all could have come from her own catalog, full of snappy grooves and surreal, sometimes funny hooks, like the reverb-drenched guitar or the twanging mouth-harp.
    PLO Man More than just the better stage, Bossa was truly a star of Sustain-Release, thanks to an inspired design that transformed this modest wooden shack into a disorienting rave box. Fluorescent tube lights ran from the ceiling down the wall behind the DJ booth, submerging the crowd in colored flashes (some people found this too much at times, but I was always onboard). The real masterstroke, though, was the window wrapping around the top of the room, looking out onto trees that appeared only when lit from outside. When the sun came up, daylight poured in, blending with the smoke and colored light. The only artist who got to play for the sunrise in there was PLO Man, the Berlin-based Vancouverite behind the label Acting Press. After he took over from Powder, I'd popped into the main room for a bit of Helena Hauff, but a friend beckoned me back—PLO Man was playing jungle, he said. By the time I got there, he'd sauntered into sunnier climes, with cuts like Men From The Nile's "Watch Them Come!" This was the beginning of a soaring hit parade that went on for hours, hitting all the sweet spots without ever overdoing it. Deep cuts like Marvin Dash's B1 from Workshop 14 offset unapologetic anthems like Bizarre Inc's "I'm Gonna Get You." For me, the weekend's best goosebumps moment was the breakdown in Armand Van Helden's remix of CJ Bolland's "Sugar Is Sweeter," which dove straight into the most destructive track Felix Da Housecat ever made, "In The Dark We Live (Thee Lite)" (released as Aphrohead). I had to sneak off to bed before he finished, but from my cabin I heard the set end and restart over and over, as if the DJ simply couldn't help himself. I'm pretty sure more came after it, but for me the final song of the weekend was Love Inc's "Life's A Gas," a surreal mash-up of the T Rex song by that name and Roxy Music's "True To Life" that sounded perfect wafting up the hill and into my cabin. Photo credits / Mariah Tiffany - Lead Nieto Dickens - Powder, Akanbi, Josey Rebelle Ryan Scannura - PLO Man