I had absurdly high expectations for Free the Robots' OC live debut—and, knock me over with a feather, those expectations were exceeded. That experience is so rare, I'd almost forgotten what it feels like. Seeing Free the Robots (SanTana impresario/musicians Chris Alfaro and Phil Nisco, who are also readying the potentially awesome Crosby restaurant/club) walk off the stage at Detroit Bar after their riveting, teasingly brief set, I was overwhelmed with a selfish desire for them to extend their performance indefinitely, work tomorrow be damned. Yes, Free the Robots are so good, they can inspire irresponsible urges in music editors.
With Nisco manning the Nord Electro 2 keyboard and Alfaro handling the Akai MPD24 pad controller, PowerBook and Vestax turntable, the duo started with a goth-hop head-nodder fueled by a Black Sabbath vocal sample (don't tell Ozzy—or Sharon). They proceeded with more eerie downtempo funk that could chill the Wu-Tang Clan's marrow. Alfaro's intricate beat programming with frantic marimba embellishments made “Yoga Fire” a dynamite pulse-elevator. The accelerated funk with shimmering, shattered guitar riff of “Wake Up Or Die” was an indelible favorite, and ditto for the baroque, moody-blue prog-hop of “Diary.”
The sizable crowd bellowed for an encore, but Free the Robots appeared to be spent. However, they called a friend named Hannah onstage to play the sassily swinging “Jazzhole” on the Nord, which really emphasized the song's upliftingly melancholy tune.
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In 2007, it's extremely hard to add new wrinkles to hip-hop's three-decade-old visage, but Free the Robots are doing just that. With their distinctive beat patterns, memorably odd melodies and tracks that allude to the florid end of progressive and heavy rock and really old-school jazz, these young Orange County artists are creating music that's both playful and seriously inventive. I am confident in predicting that Free the Robots are one or two break(beat)s away from blowing up nationally.