'John Henry' Rose: Battling percussion ends in draw

Remember John Henry? He was said to be the biggest, strongest "hammer man" working on the C&O railroad. One day a dude came along with a steam-powered drill, claiming it could work faster than any man. John Henry out-drilled the machine– and then dropped dead.

I hadn't thought much about John Henry since elementary school until his name came up in reference to the impromptu percussion jam session put on by Rex Riddem, Fort Knox Five, and John-Henry Dale (whose name I didn't know at the time) at Satellite Ballroom.

The session included local percussion master Darrell Rose, who led another drummer and guy on electronic drums through some mind-boggling polyrhythms and grooves. Fort Knox Five's subtle incorporation of samples into the groove and a quite capable flautist's improvisation added spice.

The people and instruments formed an interesting dynamic on stage. Darrell Rose was John Henry, an artist with unbelievable speed, strength, and stamina. He sat in the middle, battling the sound of the electronic drums, out to prove with each stroke that no matter what, a machine can't do what a human can. Rose was living proof.

In the end, the story of John Henry just didn't apply. It had been replaced with another epic tale of man versus machine, The Matrix trilogy. At the conclusion of The Matrix, neither man nor machine emerges victorious. Instead, they find a balance, much like the merging of organic and computer-generated sounds on the Satellite stage.

The impromptu jam ended almost too soon, but was replaced by a 45-minute Fort Knox Five DJ set that featured music from all over the danceable music spectrum. He didn't hesitate to play rock, hip-hop, and drum 'n bass in succession. Most impressive were his obscure break-beat remixes and his ability to drop and blend tracks seamlessly. Although he did drop a couple of songs that were a bit hard for the dancing locals to digest, he ultimately won the crowd over.

After a short break, Thunderball took the stage. In recordings, Thunderball is a production duo known for down-tempo, drum 'n bass, dub, and tribal-infused grooves. They burst on the scene in early 2000 on the strength of label mates Thievery Corporation. On stage, Thunderball consists of two DJs and a percussionist, flautist/saxophonist, and front-man/vocalist. This night, Darrell Rose also sat in on the set.

The crowd quickly became engulfed in this wall of beats. It was a dance party in the best way. I could easily see an event like this becoming a regular must-do weekend experience in Charlottesville. Not to mention, Thunderball sounded great through the newly adjusted sound system in the Ballroom. Whereas in the past I've been critical of Satellite's shoddy sound, I have to say they finally got it right.

Thunderball performed tracks from their previous album, Scorpio Rising, as well as music to be featured on their next label release. Personally, I find their music to be more appropriate for cocktail parties and lounging around on a weekend than for a club affair.

But then again, that's their appeal. They straddle the cool and mellow and the high-energy perfectly, the same way they balance the organic and the synthetic. That's got to be a tough tightrope act. But somehow they pull it off.