Jeff Mills is a name that carries significance, at least within the realm of modern American techno. One of the founding members of Underground Resistance — a Detroit-based label combining Motown soul and gritty electro-techno with DIY charm and an almost militaristic edge not unlike Public Enemy — Mills helped construct the Detroit techno scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s before moving to New York to further pursue a solo career. He is deserving of his title; his DJ sets are complex, often stacked with three or four turntables, and he pioneers new directions to take the electronic music he produces, often adding keyboard, drum and orchestral input to his sets.
Yet, despite Mills’s well-established history within American techno and obvious prowess, he finds more success internationally than he does within his hometown of Detroit, noticing that European countries are more welcoming of his nouveau interpretations of techno: Fusing electronic and classical to create a sound that is almost celestial. “I’ve been doing this for about a decade and have never once received an invitation to come to the US, so I have to assume there isn’t much interest,” Mills revealed in a 2015 interview with The Guardian.
Which is why his live show with afrobeat drummer Tony Allen at Marble Bar on Mar. 2 was so unprecedented. Not only did two musical legends have the opportunity to perform together — with Rolling Stone naming Tony Allen as one of top 100 greatest drummers of all time — but also it was a chance to see Mills return to his roots, on-stage in the same city where his career all started.
Before the group even appeared, the energy was tangible. The sold-out show caused the venue to become packed with people; the wall-to-wall anticipation made the air spark, and when the musicians finally stepped into view — sophistication conveyed through sleek, suave suits and tinted sunglasses — the crowd seemed to burst into flames.
The show was immersive; the combination of neon tinted stage lights, live drum set and video projection allowing the audience to fully view the scope of the complexities behind a Jeff Mills DJ set caused the performance to feel personal, the stripped-down synth and ever-evolving percussion felt larger than life. Everything seemed organic. Rather than a rehearsed performance, Marble Bar hosted a dynamic conversation between the various instruments on stage: The tempo would change, and the kick drum would respond accordingly. Muted keyboard would smoothly progress into more upbeat rhythms as the drumline kicked in. Consistent over everything, Jeff Mills kept the pulse alive, fingers flying over the turntables in front of him, face calmly focused on the task at hand. Nothing seemed planned, yet every snare, every cymbal crash, every sound modulation coming from Mills was done with purpose and precision — mastery over an art form at its finest.