A young woman arrived at the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday, May 4, wearing furry black boots and a zebra-print dress, looking like the love child of a rave and a taxidermy shop. The crowd milling around her seemed primed for a wholesome round of dance music from Moby—provided everyone could be in bed by midnight, that is.
They were well on their way thanks to the prompt start of opener Buck 65, whose set was brief but mesmerizing. The Canadian hip-hop oddity stood alone at the center of the stage in a sport jacket, spewing his frantic story-songs into the microphone against stuttering, ragged beats. He punctuated several of them with scratching, manipulating the turntable at his right so effortlessly that he made a joke out of it: faking an exaggerated yawn with one hand, working the record with the other. Two red spotlights trained on him added hellish heat to the innuendo of his last song, "Wicked and Weird," a road-trip ballad from This Right Here Is Buck 65, which V2 released in January. Each time he snarled out the chorus ("Wicked and weird . . . Trying to practice doing back flips on your mattress"), it felt a little more hypnotic.
Equally hypnotic was the start of Moby's set: "My Weakness," the incredibly lush closing track from 1999's Play, crept from the speakers accompanied by roving green spotlights. The recording rose from a shimmering whisper to a bass-heavy rumble that caused the floor to shake. After taking the stage, the band whipped through several songs from the new album, Hotel. Forgettable pop made more forgettable by Moby's pasty vocals, the songs went by in a blur.
Throughout the night, Moby insisted on inflicting unfunny musical jokes on the audience. We endured a lounge version of "Free Bird" (yes, someone requested it), a "jazz bossa nova" rendition of Radiohead's "Creep," and 35 pointless seconds of "speed metal"—yeah, whatever, Moby—just to get to the good stuff: dance tracks from the pre-Play era. Luckily, the band completely nailed the 1991 single "Go," with Laura Brown's vocals soaring gloriously over Scott Frassetto's raucous drums and Moby on bongos.
For a few moments during "Go," all I could see were hands held high, silhouetted against blue light; that and the oppressive heat evoked a rave on the white sands of Ibiza, if you squinted—a lot. I'm betting that, like me, most of the people who blissed out to "Go" at the Paramount have never been to a rave. And therein lies the limitation of a Moby show: Successful enough to go off in a new direction, he draws less than ever from his underground roots. Since the audience doesn't seem to care, the dance music you do get is almost an afterthought. As the crowd streamed out of the Paramount and into the bars of Capitol Hill, I checked my watch. 11:04 p.m.—still 56 minutes to kill.