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Reviews > Shows

Published: 2003/11/07
by Jesse Jarnow

Captured By Robots, Tribeca Rock Club, NYC- 11/6


Last night, I saw a band of robots perform a musical version of The Ten
Commandments. And by "musical," of course, I mean "thrash metal." It hit
the spot. I’d had a lousy day.

Every now and then, technology briefly becomes the bane of my existence. It
is infrequent, but when it occurs, it burns with an all-encompassing white
rage. It does not arise from a desire to end my relationship with computers
or cell phones and return to a "pure" existence, so much as a frustration
that something has gone wrong that was entirely out of my control. Yesterday
was one of those days, and I spent three hours at the Genius Bar at the
Apple Store in a half-sulk talking to a strange pony-tailed man in sweat
suit who spoke with a slight German accent and took giant notes on giant
paper with a stubby red pencil while we waited to be helped.

Technology is a surprisingly private experience, and each user tends to have
a uniquely creative relationship with his own. In public, in places like the
Apple Store, these relationships tends to come to light, and we confide in
the other customers there, explaining the little quirks our machines have
developed, as if they were our children, the self-developed tricks we need
to do to make them work. A few weeks ago, I sat in the back room at the
Verizon shop, took a number, and waited for them to look at my broken cell
phone. The gray walls, uncomfortable couches, and nervous looking patrons
made the place feel more like the waiting room of a doctor’s office. In most
cases, as in the Apple Store, it seemed like the problems in the technology
grew directly from the users’ own foibles and insecurities.

If this is true, then Jason Vance’s Captured By Robots is one hell of a case
study, no matter how you slice it. If one were to have walked into the
Tribeca Rock Club with no knowledge of Vance, just as the band was beginning
their set, this is what he would have seen: a band of robots – yes, playing
guitars and drums and horns and whatnot – who have enslaved their human
creator and forced him to perform with them. That’s the shtick. Of course,
if one had walked in five minutes earlier, he would have seen Vance
scurrying about the stage, uncoiling extension cords, hooking his bizarre
contraptions into air hoses, plugging in audio cables, and running them
through a central onstage mixer.

The robots were fantastic creations. A cyborg held a double-necked
flame-decorated guitar/bass. At the bottom, where his hands should be, were
small mechanical flippers, which strummed the strings. Up the necks were
small bars that resembled piano hammers, one at each fret. When GTRBOTT666
(as he was called) was fired up, the bars came down on the strings like a
player piano and, well, he fuckin’ thrashed. He was bedecked in an Egyptian
headdress and a blue cape and played the part of Pharaoh Rameses II. There
were others, of course. DRMBOT 0110 played Nefreteri. AUTOMATOM played
Dathan. The Headless Hornsmen, each holding Victrola-looking devices, played
the Angels of Death. The Ape Which Hath No Name, a large stuffed gorilla
with a tambourine affixed to his head, played the Voice of God. The Son of
the Ape Which Hath No Name – a smaller, cuter ape – played Baby Jesus. And
Vance – known as JBOT, face covered by a googly-eyed leather gimp mask, and
wrapped in chains – well, he played Moses. He’s been doing the
tormented-by-his-creation thang for a few years now, apparently, and this
fits in just marvelously. Think about it.

And though it was already one of the best shows I’d seen all year before
Vance fired up the airhoses, it got weirder and weirder. As The Ten
Commandments was shown on the wall of the club, Vance and, um, company
played a counterpoint to the story, retelling the story of Moses the
enslavement (and subsequent liberation) of the Israelites while Charlton
Heston beamed down on confused club-goers. My friend and I stood with our
mouths agape, half-heartedly slam-dancing occasionally. "Those who will not
live by the law," JBOT recited, while holding a pair of foam tablets,
Commandments scrawled on them, "shall DIE BY THE LAW!" With that, JBOT dove
into the crowd and began paddling audience members with the Commandments,
and ran towards the back of the room screaming, the robots rocking on.

Besides a few wonderful outbursts from JBOT and the robots (whose voices he
provided via a vocoder), the show was pretty much free from spontaneity.
That didn’t change the fact that it felt like the freshest, most spontaneous
occurrence that I’ve witnessed at a show in some time. The reason for this
was just the sheer surprise of it all. For that, the spontaneity didn’t rest
in the "musicians" at all, but in the audience — who, like me, reacted with
unbridled enthusiasm at the reality of seeing robots playing rock and roll,
and one begins to wonder how much this is true at any given show with human
musicians, and just how much we project ourselves onto performances.

But, screw that, they were robots and they rocked, y’understand? You should
go see them. Because they rock. And because they are a great manifestation
of mad scientist creativity that’s pretty much absent from rock music these
days. But mostly because they rock. That’s why Captured By Robots so totally
hit the spot. JBOT was enslaved by it, but Jason Vance was fully in control.
Instead of merely ascribing human functions to consumer-grade electronics,
he built his own, adapting bits and pieces of technological jetsam into
something wholly and genuinely personal. And they were loud. Yeah.

PS. Yes, they’re real. File
(with care) with Extreme Elvis.

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