Moby's infectious gems have no regard for genre


April 25, 2005


At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of aspiring musicians are sitting in front of their computers or multitrack cassette decks, crafting personal and idiosyncratic sounds that no one outside their bedrooms or basements is ever likely to hear.

Despite the phenomenal success of his multiplatinum breakthrough "Play," which sold 10 million copies worldwide after its release in 1999, Moby still makes intensely personal and idiosyncratic music in his bedroom, and he still seems surprised and gleeful onstage when people respond to it.

The former Richard Melville Hall of Darien, Conn., brought an impressive five-piece band to the Riviera Theatre Saturday night, touring in support of "Hotel." The new album is as strong as any he's released, though it's being savaged by many reviewers in America (it's getting a better reception overseas) and has so far failed to crack the Billboard Top 20.

It's beginning to look as if "Play" was both a blessing and a curse for Moby. Its singles were so ubiquitous on so many different radio formats -- and on the soundtracks of so many commercials and films -- that reviewers and some portion of the public seem to have suffered permanent Moby overdose.

But Moby has never been cool, not even during the 15-minute window in the early '90s when he was hailed as "the face of techno." Back then, his embrace of the straight-edge lifestyle and core Christian beliefs alienated hedonistic rave-scene hipsters as thoroughly as his relentless peddling of "Play" alienated snobby tastemakers in recent years. And his unapologetic geekiness has always been part of his appeal.

Taking the stage at the Riv wearing a PETA T-shirt, Moby reveled in nerd-dom, at one point indulging in a guitar duel with friend and bandmate Daron Murphy that came complete with spot-on Eddie Van Halen hammer-on's. In between, he made an effective two-hour argument for a catalog that is one of the most impressive of the last two decades, delivering one infectious pop gem after another with little regard for restrictive genre boundaries.

Before launching into his inspired cover of "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" by Boston's mid-'80s art-punk heroes Mission of Burma, the artist noted that he's "eternally grateful" for an audience that gives him the freedom to dabble in punk rock, quiet ballads, old-school disco and pounding rave anthems.

Moby delivered all of that and more, and "Hotel" provided many of the evening's high points. These included the melancholy heartbreak of "Raining Again," the giddy pop of "Beautiful" (which Moby introduced as a slap at "dim-witted celebrity couples"), the sing-along David Bowie tribute "Spiders" and a show-stopping rendition of New Order's "Temptation" delivered by his new accomplice, the powerful soprano diva Laura Dawn.

Dawn's live vocals replaced the celebrated samples of blues field recordings in many of the hits from "Play," underscoring that the strength of tunes such as "Porcelain" and "Honey" was always in Moby's understated but infectious keyboard melodies. And Dawn made a fine substitute for Gwen Stefani in the joyous "South Side," which Moby said was inspired by his many visits to Chicago and his love for its vibrant house scene.

The two-hour set was completed with songs from 2002's underrated "18" -- including "We Are All Made of Stars," another geek milestone inspired by quantum physics -- as well as signature tracks from Moby's early career, including the still-undeniable rave anthem, "Go." Through it all, Moby was as frenetic but charming as ever, and his band was as adept at mixing sweaty live instrumentation with digital backing tracks as any I've ever seen.

It may not be cool to like Moby in 2005. But to the sold-out crowd at the Riv -- an encouraging mix of young indie music lovers, longtime Moby fans, and forty- and fiftysomethings who fell in love with the haunting soundscapes of "Play" -- it could not have mattered less.