The invitation to last night's Hennessy shindig at Capitale listed the ubiquitous Moby as one of the "confirmed celebrities." This was odd, because although Moby might be ubiquitous at Manhattan events, he is not actually omnipresent — and he was in fact ten blocks away, rocking out in the dingy confines of Tonic.
Moby, you ask? Rocking out? Indeed. Perhaps it was the critical yawning that greeted Hotel, his ultraslick double album that sounded like it was commissioned for hotel lobbies. Maybe it was something else. But the fact remains that Mr. Melville, the world's leading purveyor of feathery melodic techno, has been stealthily refashioning himself into a guitar-wielding post-punk front man. And that persona was on full display last night.
Moby sighed and growled through a set of rocked-up versions of his synthy hits and the occasional choice cover. He even got to sing Mission of Burma's "That's When I Reach for My Revolver" with the right words (the decision to replace the title line with the lame "That's when I realize it's over" prompted some indie tut-tutting back in the day). The stakes were pleasantly low; friends and friends of friends made up the audience — only a hundred tickets went up for sale through Moby's own Website. His band also looked, and often sounded, like friends having fun: a pale, Gothy bass player, an energetically silly drummer, and a keyboardist and two backup singers pretty much off doing their own thing. None of this was particularly rehearsed, but following a career of car-ad sleekness, the flaws were the point.
If it's imperfection you're after, the diminutive, dingy Tonic is, well, perfect. Squeezed by the weird colossus of the Blue building on one side and another, less chromatic condo development on the other, the club's very existence looks poignant. The place manages to stay relevant, too — a far neater trick that CBGB's self-cannibalizing legend-mongering. Last year, it called in every favor in town and fought back a looming eviction. Its tenacity must hold a certain appeal for Moby, himself a struggling Lower East Side entrepreneur.
The set ended with an honest-to-God funk freak-out version of Play's "Honey." "Now if you wait a minute, we'll set up some turntables," Moby said sheepishly when it was done, instantly shedding the rock-cred buildup, "and I'll play some records." And then he did.