Ben Sisto – Sisto Act 2 (5.28.08)

Posted on July 28, 2008

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Love During Wartime — a last splash and a fresh start

The best part of the Tesla-coil show at the Museum of Science is when the presenter rises above the crowd in a giant bird cage to go head-to-head with bolts of lightning. He warns the spectators to cover their ears, he flips a switch on his console, and his cage gets the shit zapped out of it. He touches the bars and the coils spark right to his fingertips — sort of like those balls at Spencer Gifts, but bigger and louder. It’s as if he were taking direct hits from the Death Star. Then it’s over and he emerges intact. People, it seems, can survive harrowing experiments with the right combination of fearlessness and wisdom.

The fourth-graders on the bleachers cheer as Ben Sisto and I sit on a balcony overlooking the spectacle. It occurs to me that Sisto, the ever-bearded promoter of all things locally blog-taggable as “DIY,” has been in the electric bird cage for years. He’s booked a young adulthood’s worth of ever-evolving events that have tapped into talents and employed approaches that nobody else had ever noticed, or felt comfortable touching. This weekend marks one of his biggest endeavors ever: the sequel to last year’s “Love During Wartime” dance party at the Paradise. It’s also his Boston swan song; after teasing us for months, he swears he’s finally moving to New York.

“I don’t like looking at nights out as an escape,” he says at the museum, seated inside a replica of the Apollo Command Module as though awaiting the countdown to his departure. “It’s really a chance to build something every night.” Like its predecessor, this year’s LDW is party first but massive love letter to the city’s bare-bones arts scene second. The event mashes together a host of scenes that have benefitted from Sistonian booking since his first events in a MassArt gymnasium — most notably the DIY art-punk scene and Boston’s freshly blown-up underground dance scene.

The line-up of DJs is as varied as the shows Sisto has organized during his tenure here, including everything from upstart retro luminaries like Joseph Colbourne and electro kingpins like Etan (of Basstown) to raw-instinct selections like Neptune’s Mark Pearson and Lemmingtrail guru/younger Sisto offspring Matt. Things will be capped with a live performance from Bone Zone, who promise a gigantic stage-prop cop’s head with flashing red eyes. (Sisto: “I need to make sure everyone knows this show is still coming from a sort of punk place.”)

In addition to encouraging quality time on the dance floor, LDW puts a priority on progressive networking, employing an Obama-style small-donation strategy to raise money for a grant that will be given to a local artist selected from a pile of submissions to be gathered through the event. “I love getting money for people. It’s left over from punk, this idea that money is bad — but people need it to make art, and there’s no money from the city, so it’s got to come from all of us.” His idea of a triumphant wrap-up of the original night (“way better than running to put money down on a new Volvo or something”) was his handing last year’s winner, photographer Lissa Rivera, her check for $1000 at a local pizzeria.

If nothing else, LDW is a culmination of Sisto’s innovative history of events and pet projects. It’s got the thrown-together feel of a house party, sure, but it also has the careful polish a proud artist gives his work before placing it on a gallery wall. In fact, Sisto’s concern with presentation borders on obsessive — a cause for suspicion among the more cynical. Promo materials reliably look good, demonstrating an unabashed affection for particular fonts, edgy design schemes, and often iffy legibility. The visual aspect of his projects has conveyed the feel of, pardon the term, branding. “People identified with punk from the beginning because everything associated with it looked good. On the complete other extreme, it’s the same with Nike. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.”

Dan Shea, another local impresario who’s had a long history booking underground and club shows of his own, looks to Sisto as the ultimate promoter and party thrower: “He’s been the embodiment of interesting progressive DIY for a long time in this city, an inspiration and presenter of fun times with few rivals.”

Shea points to the growing dance scene as a major development during his time in Boston. “I don’t think rock is dying at all, but there has been an expansion of options that people — especially young people — have for getting into music and finding a community through that music that still rejects mainstream culture.”

[Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, 5.28.08]

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