Collaborating with a cellist and a superb trio of vocalists (featuring Inyang Bassey), an unassuming Moby transforms several hit songs in an illuminating performance filmed for Nigel Godrich’s “From the Basement” series.
Ever since Moby became basically the first electronic-music rock star in the ‘90s, he has approached the job with reluctance, refusing to upgrade from his bald-with-horn-rimmed-glasses-and-T-shirt look. For this performance on Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich’s show “From the Basement,” the DJ is content to be a soft-spoken sideman, strumming an acoustic guitar on his signature hits “Natural Blues” and “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” while ceding the vocals to the superb Inyang Bassey.
Moby teases this understated approach from the beginning of the five-song, 23-minute set, as his all-female band of three singers and a cellist is warming up. “You got a big-ass mic, Moby,” Bassey tells him. A deadpan Moby replies: “Thank you.”
The performance reflects the period when Moby was sampling old blues and gospel field recordings for his smash 1999 album “Play,” then followed it up with the reflective single “We Are All Made of Stars.” Opening the “Basement” performance with that 2002 hit, Moby stays true to character, providing the backbone with his flat, unaffected vocals and bluesy guitar-playing and allowing singers Bassey, Julie Mintz and Mindy Jones to turn it into an R&B rave-up. The song seemed like David Bowie-lite in 2002, but this band finds unexpected depth and soul: “Slowly rebuilding/I feel it in me/Growing in numbers/Growing in peace,” Moby sings.
Moby falls even further into the background on the second song, the folk classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” in which Bassey takes over so completely that the performance should bear her name. Moby sings on just one other song, “Porcelain,” his 2000 hit about breakup and depression that begins: “In my dreams I’m dying all the time/Then I wake, it’s kaleidoscopic mind.” In lieu of the samples and swirling electronic sounds of the original, Moby and Bassey fall back on call and response, alternating between Moby’s almost droney verses and Bassey’s warmly evocative “hey, hey, woman, it’s all right.” Throughout this song, and the rest of the set, Adrienne Woods’ cello provides a gravitas that recalls Nirvana’s famed “MTV Unplugged in New York” set.
But Moby has always been more comfortable with the faceless-DJ approach, usually making samples and effects the focal point of his albums rather than his voice.
Born Richard Melville Hall, Moby took his name from “Moby Dick,” then emerged as perhaps the first star from the early ‘90s rave-and-techno scene. He has flirted with massive fame since then, as “Play” sold more than 12 million copies, and he mixed it up with Eminem on MTV. But Moby has always been more comfortable with the faceless-DJ approach, usually making samples and effects the focal point of his albums rather than his voice. Stripping out the electronica of the originals, he recreates this non-Moby-centric feel in Godrich’s basement.
Moby makes the astute choice in “From the Basement” to focus three out of the five songs on “Play,” which has the sturdiest tracks of any of his albums, and the closing one-two punch of “Natural Blues” and “Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?” possesses the feel of Beck’s more folky experiments. The difference is Beck is comfortable as the center of attention, while Moby prefers to be a sort of musical director.
Bassey, who has worked with Moby for years, stands up while Moby is seated; wears a bright-orange dress to Moby’s nondescript white T-shirt; and plays to the camera while Moby stares into the distance. Bassey and the other brilliant backup players turn Moby’s songs, and Godrich’s basement, into a potent mixture of juke joint, arena concert, campfire singalong and, at certain moments, Sunday-morning service.
Moby “From the Basement” Setlist
We Are All Made of Stars
Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?
Steve Knopper is a Billboard editor at large, former Rolling Stone editor, author of “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age” and “MJ: The Genius of Michael Jackson” and a contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune and many other publications. He lives in Denver, Colorado.