The never-ending construction on Washington Avenue is certainly a pain in the ass, both for club owners, whose business suffers when their confused and frightened West County patrons can't figure out where to park their SUVs, and for stalwart clubgoers, who must navigate a sadistic obstacle course before they can get their beat fix. It's hard to come off all rah-rah-go-city! when the city's "improvement" efforts drag on with no end in sight. In our darkest hours, we wonder whether the interminable chaos will kill the downtown dance scene before it ever gets the chance to thrive, whether Washington Avenue and its environs will devolve into a yupped-out dystopia for people who thought they wanted to be where all the street life was until they figured out that, hey, street life can be noisy.
We can indulge in gloom-and-doom prognostications till the cows come home or the construction workers go home, but minor nuisances such as yawning chasms and blocked-off streets won't stop the brave, stubborn folks behind the sixth Washington Avenue Beat Festival, which begins at 9 p.m. Sunday, September 1, and runs until 3 a.m. Monday, September 2. The organizers have been dealing with this bullshit for well over a year, but their twice-annual throwdown keeps getting better and better. Five clubs, all within comfortable strolling distance of one another, participate in the event, and thousands upon thousands of people show up. Walking the streets during Beat Fest is a surefire way to cure anyone of the cowtown blues -- twice a year, Washington's like a little Manhattan, with happy hordes of pretty youth all tarted up in their fancy duds, popping in and out of clubs, traipsing down the alleyways, stumbling over panhandlers, getting their cute li'l freak on.
The happenin' throngs would be reason enough to check out Beat Fest, but the stellar lineup is the real dealmaker. Each installment is a perfect mix of cutting-edge newcomers, perennial favorites, local heroes and some gasp-inducing hotshot whom you just can't believe they managed to lure to St. Louis. Last spring, that hotshot was none other than hip-hop visionary Prince Paul, who headlined the Galaxy; his incendiary set of old-school jams even managed to rouse Radar Station from our customary paralytic stupor. For this go-round, the reigning hotshot has gotta be Prince Paul's Handsome Boy Modeling School cohort Dan "the Automator" Nakamura, who's a stone-cold genius, whether he's working with underground rapper and certified perv Kool Keith or with his platinum-selling cartoon band, Gorillaz. (Before headlining at the Galaxy on Sunday night, the Automator is doing an in-store at Vintage Vinyl at 2 p.m.)
But Beat Fest has many highlights. Rue 13 boasts Jazzanova, a six-man DJ/producer collective that fashions a surprisingly soulful and organic-sounding nu-jazz/breakbeat/samba fusion almost entirely from samples. The Berlin-based beatmasters' new full-length, In Between, seems almost neurotically pristine at times -- thousands of microsurgically spliced beats, broken up and reconstituted into a glittering mosaic of sound -- but its polyrhythmic lushness is so engaging, so damned danceable, that what you hear is the soul, not the thankless nerd hours that went into faking it. The buzz factor on these guys is out of control, so be sure to show up plenty early. You won't regret it: Well-regarded house DJs Scott McMurray and Mark Churchill spin earlier in the evening, and the always amazing Hot House Sessions rounds out the bill.
Velvet's big booking coup this year is D:Fuse, a Texas native with roots in industrial who's widely acknowledged as one of the leaders in progressive trance. He's opened for Paul Oakenfold, and he records for Moonshine, which pretty much amounts to superstar status in the electronic-music world.
Tangerine offers the live electro-lounge of the Urban Jazz Naturals, who never fail to rock the house. Also on the menu are Pat Nice, a Kansas City native who spins deep house, and Kenny Kingston (a.k.a. Cougar Shuttle), of Litterthugz fame, who digs deep into the vaults for classic '80s party tracks.
Lo is a veritable oasis for drum & bass ladies: Headlining is Storm, who was at the forefront of the D&B movement. With her longtime collaborator, Kemistry, who died a few years ago in a freak car accident, Storm was one of the first successful female DJs in what is still a male-dominated genre. Opening are Kristen, of the local 2 Fly Bitches crew, and Empress, of NYC.
See www.weda1.com for more information, including a detailed map that may spare you some parking hassles.