Lemonade samples the world on the way to the dance floor

On a banging Friday night at the Rickshaw, all clocks are set to Gucci Time. It's the first club collaboration between veteran DJs Matthew Africa, Disco Shawn, and Ryan Poulson — an effort to nudge city kids from their comfortable genre niches. For a premiere event, the place is slamming early, patrons sporting everything from sideways-cocked baseball caps to colorful hippie prints, all lubricating the dance floor for the newcomers still streaming through the door.

The DJ is spinning an energized blur of Baltimore club and hip hop, punctuated by a live performance from Alameda's hyphy exemplar, Trackademicks, all charisma and club hits as he takes the mike in a white track suit. As the evening creeps toward midnight, though, I'm a little anxious about the fate of our headliner, Lemonade. The San Francisco group's eclectic offerings (available only on MySpace) are coarse with psychedelic textures and light on the easy fixes — the percussion crosses continents, the vocals are tangles of guttural exclamations, and the melodies spring from all over. The closest connections the tracks bear to modern music are to artists like Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance, and Sunburned Hand of the Man — fervent experimentalists deep below the dance charts.

The Gucci crowd is downing the hip hop like last-call booze at an open bar, and Africa is quick with the refills: the Pack, T.I., Mac Dre, Ding Dong, M.I.A. Where will he find the link between these quick hitters and a free-jamming, trance-raving, krautrock-via-South American-beats band? Africa's answer is the last song in his set: Liquid Liquid's "Cavern."

As the minimalist-funk precursor to "White Lines" fades out, the three lanky young dudes arranging equipment on stage burst to life. Lemonade's drummer, Alex Pasternak, wearing headphones filled with phantom drum-machine beats, kicks things off. Ben Steidel slaps on the bass, and vocalist Callan Clendenin peers into the crowd from behind a rainbow-striped mask. The homemade costume transforms the frontman into an art-damaged cultist, with a pink brain shooting lightning rods down the side of his face; in his hand is a piece of driftwood picked up during a Big Sur gig. When Clendenin isn't pointing the gnarled wizard stick at revelers below, he's manning a chaos pad, an instrument that clears the passageways to Lemonade's worldly samples — Arabic melodies, hyphy drum beats, bits of disco, dub, and Baltimore club. The act's MO is total saturation, a carnival of eerie drones and odd frequencies, of dance hall and dementia with a beat that commands your body's movements even as your mind goes on a different ride. Live, it's an intoxicating bit of voodoo; Pasternak will later tell me that his favorite description of Lemonade's sound is "a techno-Brazilian samba line on mushrooms."

Mass partiers move under hypnotic grooves while Gucci Time otherwise stands still — it may be 45 minutes or two hours while Lemonade performs its exorcism. The group's songs are elastic, expanding and contracting depending on whether it's performing on a rock bill or in a DJ lineup. When the set slowly fades to a simmer, Disco Shawn throws "Hustling" by Rick Rock on the turntables, refusing to stop the momentum for a second. Lemonade remains on stage, leaving the equipment alone to bob and weave to the new beats. Again, the transition is seamless. Having never seen Lemonade live before, Disco Shawn and Africa will concur the following week that the show was "awesome" and "well received." I take off well before 2 a.m., feeling like I've emerged from a crazy communal hypnotism — that ecstatic place where only a great DJ or dance act can offer transport. Only this destination is also littered with freak flags, which is why I really dig it.

A couple nights later I'm sitting at Pasternak and Clendenin's top-floor flat in the Castro District, views of downtown out the bay windows, a snake-charming mismarinstrument on the mantelpiece, and crates and piles of vinyl bookending the turntables by my side. It's after 10 on a weeknight, and the three guys (Steidel has joined us) are drinking Diet Sparks, waking up for a midnight band practice and discussing the past weekend's shows. "The people in the dance music community have been really supportive of us," says an awed Steidel. "I thought that [Lemonade] was going to go more in the direction of us always being the danciest band on the experimental bill, but instead we're usually the weirdest band on the dance bill." He admits feeling initially intimidated about headlining for a crowd going nuts on hip hop. "I was thinking, 'This is going to be horrible — we're playing weird, psychedelic, drony techno.' But the dance kids were great."

The 1-year-old trio moves smoothly between gigs at dance clubs (Club Six, Mighty), small bars (the Make-Out Room), and rock venues (El Rio, Bottom of the Hill — where they'll perform on Nov. 25 with Les Georges Leningrad); in New York, Liquid Liquid's Salvatore Principato became a temporary percussionist for Lemonade, in exchange for getting a lady friend on the guest list. "I don't think any of our shows have made sense, and that's part of it," says Clendenin. "Our [second] show was at Amnesia — and it was a world-beat night for Six Degrees Records; all the world music people loved it."

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