New Kids on Acid in Berlin

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  • Predicting whether a party will be good or not is a strange, hunch-based science. Big name DJs often disappoint, no-names sometimes steal the show and the best sets are usually the ones that contradict your expectations. The situation is especially uncertain when it involves Ricardo Villalobos, a DJ whose potential on any given night ranges from decent to totally mindblowing. Two or three unforgettable sets have confirmed him as one of my favorite artists, but I've also learned not to rely on him—for someone with so much talent, he has a strange habit of coasting through his sets, even (or perhaps especially) at highly anticipated gigs. For this reason, the week leading up to New Kids On Acid had me saying things like "Saturday's going to be great," then qualifying it with something like "I mean, assuming it doesn't completely blow." Unfortunately those qualifications were all too necessary. Despite being one of Berlin's most hyped annual parties, this year's New Kids on Acid was mediocre from beginning to end, with only one or two exceptions. Aside from Zip, none of the supporting acts I saw made much of an impression. Massimiliano Pagliara opened the night with forgettable house on the water floor. Ata's New Wave-flavored set had a lot of personality, but not enough groove to keep the crowd interested. Upstairs on the main floor, Portable had his moments, but suffered from the typical shortcomings of a live PA: awkward flow, limited aural palette and weaker sound than the DJs that came before and after. As I had expected, Zip was the strongest of the bunch, which made me wish he'd been given a better slot. Considering the chemistry between him and Villalobos, I wondered why the two didn't go back-to-back, or at least play one after the other. Ricardo Villalobos took over from Portable sometime around 4:30. He started out strong, galvanizing the crowd with hook-heavy house and his usual mixing antics—sharply cutting between two songs, holding onto a vocal line for ages, layering colorful tools over simple percussive tracks, etc. There was a particularly nice passage of stripped down, Detroit-style beat workouts, and a few times it sounded like he was looping melodies backwards. Backlit by flashes of colored light, Villalobos looked decisive and undistracted. The night felt promising. Naturally, the dance floor was overcrowded when Villalobos started, so after a while I took a break outside to let it clear up a bit. Out on the terrace, the sun was up and the crowd was starting to look loose, sprawled on the leather cushions and the wooden deck. When I finally made it back upstairs, the dance floor was a bit less empty, but not much more comfortable: people seemed restless and always in transit, constantly clawing by each other in the crowd. Villalobos wasn't helping much: His set had wound down to a linear sequence of house tracks, just one after the other with most of the breakdowns left intact. He was focused on old, vocal house, which seemed a little out of character and sometimes cheesy; Maja's "If You Love Me Tonight" was OK, but Da Rebels' "House Nation Under a Groove" was a bit much. I found myself craving the trippy modern stuff that usually makes his sets stand out. I don't think I was the only one—the energy in the room had ebbed noticeably. Things got steadily worse from there, mostly due to uninspired mixing and bizarre track choices. Villalobos should have still been building the vibe—the set had yet to boil over—but instead he was letting the momentum drop prematurely. The most aggravating moment came when he played 3 Chairs' "Track 2 Track." Though an incredible Kenny Dixon Jr. production I would normally love to hear out, it was a bit ambitious for this hour at Watergate; made up of trippy disco samples and a teasing bass kick that never quite delivers, it's something only an adventurous DJ could pull off. Normally, Villalobos is precisely that DJ, and the fact that he even had the record in his crate suggests how good the set might have been. But rather than juggling the tune with something punchier, he simply let it play out almost in full, leaving the crowd to shuffle around until he faded in the next tune. By now it seemed obvious that the party wasn't going to get much better. Maybe things would improve late in the morning, but I didn't have the patience to wait around and find out. Just a 20 minute walk down the road, Ben Klock and Steffi were preparing for their closing sets at Berghain and Panorama Bar. After a few minutes of mulling it over, the decision to leave was an easy one. Looking back, maybe it's not surprising the party was so-so: at a club with sound that's average at best, Watergate doesn't seem like the kind of place that would put Villalobos in the zone. Then again, when and where he will get in the zone is becoming increasingly confusing. Earlier this year at Get Perlonized seemed like a sure shot, but despite being flanked by likeminded artists at Panorama Bar, Villalobos delivered a lackluster set. I heard he was good at Arena last month, though for some reason he played the warm-up slot from midnight to 2:00 AM. The best I've heard him this year was in May when, sweaty and exhausted from playing in Romania the night before, he tore through dozens of weird and amazing tracks I'd never heard, and did some truly original things with the ones I had (e.g. cutting between Roska's "Time Stamp" with Blackman's "Beat That Bitch With a Bat"). That said, this was at Club der Visionare, a venue with quiet sound and a dance floor that holds less than 50 people. Incidentally, it was also the rumored venue for the New Kids On Acid afterparty. This didn't happen for some reason. All of which simply goes to say that, while Villalobos is still great DJ, you really have to catch him at the right time and place. Sadly, that time and place is becoming more and more elusive.