Blockbuster Beats

When the Delta Heavy Tour's two buses and semitrailer pull up to the Verizon, the first thing unloaded will be the speakers.

Lots of speakers.

Next will come the lighting -- everything from everyday spotlights to elaborate laser rigs worth more than your mortgage. After that will be the video projectors, along with a couple of cinema-sized screens and a pair of laptops to coordinate the visuals. Finally, two Technics turntables will appear -- the dual spinning hearts that pump life into the tour.

It's the exact opposite of the way DJs have toured for years. Usually they fly to six or seven cities in the span of two weeks, taking nothing but a case of records and a pair of headphones along for the trip. It's true that some DJs, like Kid Koala and Z-Trip, have hit the road for monthlong bus tours, opening for platinum-selling bands like Radiohead and Linkin Park or playing festivals. But in most cases, the DJs seem to be an afterthought, relegated to opening slots and left to the mercy of rock fans who can't wait to see their guitar-slinging heroes in action.

But Sasha and Digweed, two of the industry's biggest names, won't be sharing the Delta Heavy bill with rock or rap acts. The tour, like the wildly successful club gig they once shared in New York, is all theirs.

"We really thought about 'How can we take things to the next level?' " says John Digweed. "And this tour is something that we came up with." The tour also was born out of necessity, after the plug was pulled on their only steady gig in America.

Sasha and Digweed each started deejaying at small clubs around England in the late '80s. The two met at "Renaissance," a prestigious club night then in Mansfield, though now held in Nottingham. Sasha's reputation spread throughout the early '90s, and club owners in Spain, Israel, Norway and even Australia were asking him to play. Meanwhile, Digweed had been promoting "Bedrock" -- his own monthly club night -- in Bournemouth, a beach resort on the English Channel. "Bedrock" grew steadily in popularity, and by 1998 it had moved to Heaven, one of London's largest clubs.

In the early days of "Bedrock," Digweed invited Sasha to play, and through their occasional gigs they developed great chemistry. Since then, they have remained close partners, releasing several acclaimed mix CDs together in the mid- and late '90s, including the Northern Exposure series.

Both live and in the studio, the two favor a blend of progressive house and trance, using tracks with deep house beats, trancy bass riffs, and twinkling piano and keyboard melodies. Their club-gig habit of trading duties on the decks allows them to play through till morning, building from sultry, seductive moods to more ethereal, often psychedelic climaxes. The steady rise, track by track, pushes clubgoers toward rhythmic nirvana.

"Spontaneous deejaying is what we enjoy," says Digweed. "That's where we get the vibe from. We get really excited about the fact that one of us will pick out a record and mix it with something else, and you think, 'Wow, I wouldn't have thought of doing that,' so that raises the other one's game to try and do something extra-special with the next set. I think the crowd can feel that energy out of the DJ booth."

American crowds were slow to warm to the duo; still, Sasha and Digweed regularly flew to the States for one-off appearances throughout the early '90s. A 1994 gig at Simon's in Orlando united them with DJ Jimmy Van M, who has been one of their best U.S. allies ever since. With the aid of Van M's Balance Promote agency, in 1996 Sasha and Digweed became two of the first DJs to hold down a transatlantic residency, with monthly engagements at New York City's legendary club Twilo.

By 2000, the Twilo nights had become such a hit that the 3,000-capacity club regularly had to turn away thousands more at the door. Their success led other European DJs to take up similar residencies in America. But when New York police shut down the club -- which had a reputation for drug use -- in May 2001, Sasha and Digweed were left without a steady U.S. gig.

"When we first started doing the Twilo residency, there wasn't this whole influx of European DJs," says Digweed. "With Twilo shutting down, it was like, 'Well, if we want to raise the bar again, we need to take what was going on at Twilo around the country.' "

But going from a successful monthly club night in New York to a full-scale nationwide tour seems less like raising the bar than snapping it in two. After all, there are plenty of bands packing New York City concert halls who still can't fill the Engine Room, let alone the Verizon Wireless Theater. But Digweed seems unconcerned with the question of turnout, even in places like Albany, Spokane and Boise -- towns not exactly brimming with Twilos of their own. He's confident that the mix CDs he and Sasha crank out almost annually have earned them plenty of die-hard fans across the country.

"For us, it's the challenge of playing somewhere new where you haven't played before, and you've got those people's expectations that you've got to live up to," Digweed says. "I think that's good for a DJ, because it keeps you on your toes and it keeps you focused on what you need to be doing and why you're doing it. Sasha and myself both rise to the occasion, because we both love that challenge."

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Steve Boughton