Occupying a powerful role in the culture of events within St Andrews, May Ball 2014 did a great job of snagging Duke Dumont as a powerful headline act. Based on its past success and the role of the Kate Kennedy Club within St Andrews’ student life, the May Ball continues to attract a vast number of students every year. Since my first year at St Andrews, they have continued to draw music acts that have perpetuated this momentum; with Jack Beats, Mylo, and Duke Dumont respectively performing on the main stage over the past three years, the May Ball convenors have recruited musicians based on their potential for famedom as well as their relevance to the towns’ general(ized) tastes. With the past at the forefront of this review’s projection onto the future, I shall compare and contrast seeing Duke Dumont at The Picture House (Edinburgh) this past November against the backdrop of his presence at this year’s May Ball. Recognizing, of course, that The Picture House is a venue meant for music, while May Ball is a venue that employs music against a backdrop of historical and social significance. One must recognize that the ambition here is to review May Ball as a music event, and as such the framework for subjectification occupies a particularly engaging field. As an overall St Andrews event (or a general review that might highlight venue, features, etc), the music does not concern some (arguably, most). This particular factor also presumably propagates such a journalistic ambition (music critique), and such subjective opinions carry the potential to offend without any authorial intent to do so. As such, this review aims to voice a particular point while recognizing that such a point might fall on deaf ears or whiz past blind eyes. Either way, the musicalized event offers up such critique by necessarily booking music acts to entertain its attendees, and continually reaffirm its role as a central event on the St Andrews social calendar. Furthermore, its position within events’ hierarchy of this coastal town exacerbates its entertainment value.
The Black Tie, Standard-VIP-Dinner paradigm of May Ball certainly attracts a particular group of students; for the sake of this immediate comparison, one assumes that these students thrive under such a framework. At The Picture House, I was surrounded by an adverse community – individuals who could not even legally consume alcohol; pushing and shoving while projecting profanity at the stage, I had no idea how The Picture House had filled with such aggressive, young attendees. Unfamiliar with UK nightlife, however, I was not sure whether this was the status quo or some strange crowd quizzically drawn to an Annie Mac Presents event (which hosted Duke Dumont). Similarly, an outsider to the St Andrews / May Ball culture could have rightfully imposed such an understanding on the progression of this years’ May Ball. Often times, students fail to reflect on the cultural atmosphere that such events imply. In other words, the crowd and the music seemed pretty non distinct, but in both cases (The Picture House and May Ball 2014) Duke Dumont played for a rambunctious crowd.
Duke Dumont’s set transported patrons outside of Kinkell Byre, if just for a few brief moments. As he left the stage, the crowd’s energy sought a worthwhile continuation of the night, but unless they followed him to his set in Edinburgh (at Cabaret Voltaire), their expectations most likely fell on empty hopes.
An important caveat to note with May Ball is its unbridled ability to attract a big crowd regardless of the artists or their performances. While the main stage enjoyed Alex Bryson (A.C.B)’s last performance of his career as a student-DJ in St Andrews, it also hosted Duke Dumont’s first performance of the night (he went on to also play a set in Edinburgh). Both DJs did a job of setting the bar, but one ought to consider whether that standard was met throughout the night or if perhaps May Ball relied too heavily on its opening acts. Duke Dumont certainly left the stage with the crowd longing for an encore performance (that might have ideally lasted throughout the night, in both tents), but the progression of the nights’ music did not deliver on this front. Before moving forward, a reminder must come forward: May Ball is not a music festival, or a music event. Just because a night has music (duh) does not mean that the event thrives on music; music possesses the ability to improve a night much more readily than hurt. Somehow, however, May Ball’s music succeeded in illuminating this functionality of music. While the VIP tent saw a progression from The Fabulous Hurricanes to student DJs Immanuel Jebsen and Joe Jones, the classic (main) stage delivered an illogical progression from prominent student DJ (A.C.B) to headline act (Duke Dumont) to a live electronic group (Seedy Sound System). Not only did such a progression disrupt the flow of the night in both rooms, but it also showcased the differing attitude of both audiences. While in the VIP tent the on-stage guests (read: not the acts) distracted the guests from the music, the acts on the main stage gave false hope of a powerful night of music as guests frantically flooded the dance floor to partake in the music of a minor segment of the night.
Duke Dumont’s set at both events seemed pretty identical. Absolutely loving the scratch-transitions between songs, he incorporated some standard house crowd pleasers into his mix. His own “Need U (100%)” and “I Got U” quenched the crowds’ thirst for his most recognizable songs, while his inclusion of “The Giver” satisfied my appetite for his own productions. Other songs such as Waze and Odyssey’s “Garage Sale Bootleg” of R. Kelly’s “Bump & Grind” continued his pursuit of a “standard” house music set. Not only were his sets at both venues notably similar, but the crowds’ reactions were almost identical. Reminiscing on the elbow-thrusting of the teenage crowd at The Picture House, my front row spot earned me quite a few ambitious attempts to overtake my position just meters from Duke Dumont. Needless to say, this mighty mosh pit proved that the May Ball had successfully provided at least one small glimpse into the finer side of music, but witnessing ACB and Duke Dumont at the start of the night set guests up for disappointment as the acts to follow fell short of the same high standard showcased in the early hours of the events’ social gauntlet.
Duke Dumont’s primary talents as a musician come from his undeniable production skills. Capturing the essence of feel-good summery vibes with both of his hits “Need U (100%)” and “I Got U,” he has proved his ability to create tunes with replay-ability and accessibility again and again. His role as a DJ, however, seems less natural than his impressive record of music production. In the one instance, he utilizes a computer to create something out of nothing, capturing the essence of a summer anthem with both of his past major hits; on stage and behind the decks, he presents his own productions yet lacks an enthusiastic or engaging method of doing so. The burden, of course, stems from an electronic musician’s mandate to both produce and perform, so his ambitions as a DJ-producer make sense. As an artist, he needs to stay relevant while bringing his music to others through live performances, and as a producer he needs to DJ to retain that artistic integrity and personal presentation. In the same way, May Ball’s ability to produce but not perform comes to mind.
While they have historically proven that guests tend to enjoy themselves at the annual KKC-hosted May Ball, attendees often have made up their mind about how the night might turn out before they even attend. Furthermore, enjoying an event worth anywhere from 45-90£ (more if you have to scalp a ticket) ought to be a requirement of any event’s success, especially one without a declared for-profit/not-for-profit financial structure. In St Andrews, it’s certainly the only event that sees hundreds of students camping out overnight just to secure tickets for one of many black tie formals. Just as Duke Dumont’s impeccable production quality distracts consumers from his underwhelming ability to DJ, so too does the social relevance of the May Ball distract from positive change within an inflated event relevance. Essentially, the hype overwhelms any critical response. The food, rides, bars, and segregation do a wonderful job of masking the event’s underlying issues. Such harsh criticism comes not out of disdain for the night, but rather out of a respect for its role as a centrepiece of St Andrews’ (lacking) nightlife. The potential to overwhelm its guests remains in the hands of next years’ convenors, but perhaps, having ticked various other boxes on an events’ check-list, they might finally tick music as a thematic avenue for entertainment rather than writing it off after booking their headline act. While both Duke Dumont’s set on the night and May Ball entertained their guests, just as Duke Dumont played a set as a warm-up for an event in Edinburgh one might view May Ball as a preliminary charade to next year’s social structuring.
Words: Austin Bell