Pretty Lights @ Red Rocks. It Finally Happened.

It feels strange to write a “review” of my weekend seeing Pretty Lights at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, as if it were just another show that I went to in New York and it wasn’t that big of a deal.

It was that big of a deal.

This past weekend in Denver was more than just a show (or two) – it was a pilgrimage. I had planned on trekking to Colorado for this show for over a year, and much like any major festival like Forest or Bisco, it wasn’t just a concert – it was an experience. And now that I’m home, I am immensely jealous of anyone who lives close enough to the Red Rocks to be able to see shows there on a regular basis.

This is what you see as you pull into the parking lot. Just a normal venue, nothing insanely beautiful about it at all. Nope nope nope.
RR

So you hang out with your people and have your pre-show beers and marvel at the majesty of it all. And then it’s time to go inside.

If you were lucky enough to park your car in the northernmost parking lot, congratulations! You now have a nice easy walk into the amphitheater. If you parked further south, however, the workout begins. You walk up a pretty brutal hill. And then you walk up a lot of stairs. And then you walk up some more stairs. You probably have to catch your breath at some point. Red Rocks is not for the weak.

It’s totally worth it though, because then you make it to wherever your seat is and there’s this:

Photo via redrocksonline.com

Photo via redrocksonline.com

At night, the rocks just kind of loom over you, all awesome-like.
night

If you go up high enough, you can see the city behind the stage, which was particularly amazing on night 2 because there was a storm in Denver that illuminated the far away sky with pink lightning.

(Lightning not pictured, sadly)

(Lightning not pictured, sadly)

I know my generation tends to overuse this word, but the Red Rocks is truly an epic venue. It’s worth flying out to Colorado for and I can’t imagine ever seeing a show there and having it not feel special.

That’s all fine and well, but I haven’t even mentioned the real reason why I was in Colorado. Of course I wanted to see a Red Rocks show, but I specifically wanted to see Pretty Lights there. And let me tell you – I’m having a hard time trying to think of what to say here. I’m so overwhelmed by the experience that I’m almost – but not quite – speechless, and I don’t know if this post will even truly do it justice.

To be brutally honest, I had my doubts. As I mentioned in my Electric Adventure recap, I liked, but did not love, Derek’s set in Atlantic City. I had fun, but I was a little worried that I had signed up for 6 hours of PL just one week after EA and I wondered if I really needed that much Pretty Lights such a short time later.

But I was a fool. I did need that much PL. I needed more, in fact. If there was a 3rd night of his Red Rocks shows, I would have been there.

It’s pretty widely known that Derek is going through some rough patches in his life right now, and as much as this is heartbreaking for his fans, his live shows have become so much more emotional and moving as a result. He isn’t someone who speaks a ton when he performs, but the words he does choose are so intense that you really get a glimpse into his struggles. He uses his music to tell a story, and while it’s easy to just get caught up in the beat and dance and have fun, if you pay attention to the mood of his shows you’ll go on his emotional journey right along with him. I’m really torn about how I feel after seeing these 2 Red Rocks shows, because I loved this newer, more cerebral element to his performances, but I know that it comes from a place of so much pain and my heart just kind of goes out to him. Even though great art tends to come from personal suffering, I think many of his fans would agree that we really hope his life turns around.

Probably the most moving moment for me was during the 2nd night when he started freestyling during this “Lost and Found” remix, and even though he came from a rap background, I had never heard him rap before and I think this blew the minds of basically everyone there.

Lyrics:
Are you happy?
I’m fuckin happy
Nah, I’m just pretendin
But I’m tryin
Half the time I’m lyin
But I promise I’m a good person
But I’m not fuckin certain

I just want to cry watching this video. Those lyrics are so simple yet so loaded and I really felt honored just being there to witness this.

Another major highlight was getting to hear my favorite song, “I Know the Truth.”


I’m glad someone else recorded it because there was no way I was going to do anything during that song except focus 100% of my attention on it. I get chills whenever I hear the deep voice go, “NO MERCY!” (54 second mark) right before the drop. I hadn’t heard PL play the original version of this song since Voodoo in November because he didn’t play it at EA and he played a remix at Camp Bisco, so this made me insanely happy.

Visually, Pretty Lights lived up to his name and provided us with the expanded lighting setup we never knew we needed. I certainly never thought to myself, “This PL show would be way better if he performed on an LED platform,” but there he was performing on an LED platform and it was crazy. You can kind of, sort of see it in this crappy photo I took:

Derek is in this photo somewhere, I promise.

Derek is in this photo somewhere, I promise.

Here’s another not-that-great photo, showing the stage from the side and the rocks.
pretty

But that’s sort of the wonder of PL live. Your subpar photos still look awesome, his occasional mess-ups don’t negatively impact your experience (at least not mine), and it’s sort of impossible to not enjoy yourself. Derek is a genius in that way.

Overall, I’m pretty elated with the 2 shows, the venue, and the awesome people I met or met up with. This was truly a memorable experience and I can’t wait for PL Red Rocks 2016!

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Concert Review: Borahm Lee at The Knitting Factory

Last night I had the opportunity to see Borahm Lee, a keyboardist known for being half of the electro-hip hop duo Break Science, perform a solo show at The Knitting Factory in Williamsburg. The fact that he had a drummer and a guitarist accompanying him apparently does not stop this from being billed as a solo show, but okay. What do I know, anyway?

Break Science, you surely recall, was on my top 10 favorite shows of 2014, and even though Lee was without his other half (amazing drummer Adam Deitch), I was excited to see what he could do on his own, all while having no actual idea as to what to expect.

We arrived at the venue at the start of hip hop group Technicolor Lenses’ set, and decided shortly after to wait the set out in the other room as we weren’t really in the mood for rap (one of the great things about The Knitting Factory is the bar, where you can sit and have a drink and watch – but not hear – the concert room through a large window in the wall).

At the stated start time for Lee’s set we headed back into the crowd, and were greeted with yet another rapper. Only this guy was much less pleasant than the first one. It was a whole lot of, “PUT YOUR MIDDLE FINGERS IN THE AIR! LET ME HEAR YOU SAY ‘FUCK THE PO-LICE!'”

I wasn’t feeling particularly angry and a lot of the crowd wasn’t either. Break Science is on the Pretty Lights Music label, and so a significant portion of the crowd to check out Borahm Lee were the same as you’d see at a Break Science or Pretty Lights show. That is, hippies. The anger seemed really misplaced in this peaceful, tie-dye-clad Brooklyn audience.

When Lee finally came on stage, even he seemed to be unsure about his opening acts, and he told us he would start off with some “palette cleansers.” His music had an ambient feel to it that really did fit with the idea of trying to clear away all the negativity of the last performer, and the crowd went nuts when he finally weaved in the Break Science hit, “Who Got It?”

After 15 or 20 minutes, Lee was joined by the drummer and guitarist, and the mellow vibes continued. I wasn’t really sure what to make of the set, because it seemed to continue with the palette cleanser theme; I felt like I was continually waiting for something to begin, not in the thick of a set in progress. A friend clarified what I had apparently missed from an earlier announcement – the set was all improvised.

The improv nature of the show explained to me why there weren’t really complete songs or even a stronger character to the music, and while I continued to be impressed by the talent of all the musicians up there, it never seemed to get into a rhythm for me. It was a little hard to dance to, a little hard to follow along with, and a little hard to focus on. As the set went on, the crowd began to thin, and my friends and I were among those who left, retreating to the other room to watch and actually be able to talk.

I won’t say I was disappointed by the evening, but I was certainly a little confused by it. The music was decent and the skill level was high, yet something didn’t feel completely right. Despite this, I’m still excited to hopefully catch Break Science next month and get to see Lee back in his element.

Concert Review: RJD2 at Brooklyn Bowl

RJD2 is decidedly not a robot character from Star Wars, though he did make his entrance – and exit – wearing a Daft Punk-esque robot suit at Brooklyn Bowl.

If you think you don’t know who RJD2 is, as I didn’t before I heard him on my Big Gigantic Pandora station 6 months ago, think about whether you’ve ever heard the Mad Men theme song. You have? Then you know him, and let me assure you that it gets so much better than that. RJ (his first 2 initials are, in fact, RJ) creates smooth, diverse hip hop, and seeing him live was, well, an experience.

The evening began with D.V.S., an electronic music producer who reminded me a lot of Big Gigantic because of his use of live instruments (he plays guitar, and at times brought out a drummer, a violinist, and, like Big G, a saxophonist). I hadn’t heard of him but I will definitely be seeking out more of his stuff in the future.

During the break between sets, I made some new friends when I backed up into a group of girls in an attempt to escape from a vomit situation that was happening directly in front of me. I apologized and explained why I crashed into them, and we bonded over the fact that we were happy to not be the person who got so drunk that they puked in a bowling alley on a Tuesday evening. We then spent the next hour or so explaining to anyone who tried to push forward as to why they didn’t want to stand in that particular spot and laughing over their horrified faces. Until a group of people zoomed in front of us before we could stop them and spent the remainder of the evening dancing in someone’s vomit. None of us had the heart to tell them; it was too late.

When RJD2 came on, I had the pleasure of standing next to a couple that I had a hard time telling if they were hilariously stoned or just plain hilarious. They narrated to each other (and, unknowingly, to me) what RJ’s songs sounded like to them.

“Oh my god it’s like I’m melting!”

“It’s raining! It’s raining! It’s raining!”

“This is a 70s game show!”

The thing is, they were right. It did sort of sound like melting, it did sort of sound like the plip plop of rain drops, and it did sound like a soundtrack straight from the $100,000 Pyramid. These were all good things, because when mixed with RJ’s beats it just created fun and totally unique hip hop tracks.

Shortly after this, the couple lit up a joint, and then got thrown out about 5 minutes later. It was a sad time for all of us.

Despite standing closer to a pool of puke that I would ordinarily like, I was happy to be pretty close to the stage because watching RJ work is incredible. He uses 4 turntables simultaneously, going back and forth playing and scratching on each of them, then hops over to keys, and then uses whatever electronic equipment he has (I should learn the names of this stuff one day, maybe). He never stops moving.

For the last few songs of his set, RJ brought out a few friends. The first was a rapper who looked – and sounded – like a hip version of Steve Urkel.

stefan

The second was a soulful singer who was dressed like a college professor and could have been the love child of Dave 1 from Chromeo and John Legend.

jordan1

Everyone was ridiculously talented, but the group up there just seemed like a posse from the Island of Misfit Toys. Which I guess wasn’t a bad thing.

Overall, it was amazing show full of highlights and lowlights and weirdlights. Definitely worth trekking in 19 degree weather for, and while I went alone, RJD2 definitely has more mass appeal than a lot of the electronic shows I typically go to (hint hint, non-EDM friends, for the next time he comes around). A+.

On Repeat: Old and New Favorites

There are 3 songs that I’ve had on heavy rotation recently. The first is “Balkan Express,” by Gramatik.

Gramatik is a producer primarily of electro-funk who I haven’t talked nearly enough about on this blog (or at all?). A lot of his stuff has a similar vibe (an awesome vibe, I should mention), and then he’ll occasionally come out with a song that seems out of left field. I only recently downloaded his 2010 “Street Bangerz 3” album and discovered this gem. “Balkan Express” clearly draws on his Slovenian roots, and feels like it should be accompanied by the world’s coolest ballet.

Next on my list is “I Can See It In Your Face,” by Pretty Lights, who, unlike Gramatik, maybe I talk about a little too much on this blog (never!).

I heard this song at Voodoo Festival and had no idea what it was called. I didn’t really think too much about it because I spent the weeks after Voodoo excessively listening to “I Know the Truth,” which is my favorite PL song and which he played last at that show. But when my obsession with that song died down, I moved on to this one. Only I had no idea how to locate it. I went through all the Pretty Lights songs that I have, and then went systematically through his website and downloaded any album I didn’t already own. I still hadn’t found it, and all I knew was that it had a really awesome muted trumpet part. I was listening to the final album in the collection and starting to panic that if the song wasn’t on it, I wouldn’t know where else to find it. But alas, I heard those trumpets and started grinning like an idiot – while I was on the elliptical machine.

tweet

Finally, I have been devouring as much of newcomer Vibe Street’s music as I can. Vibe Street, AKA Ben Davis, produces a mix of blues, bluegrass and hip hop that he likes to call “grasshop.” “Something From Outer Space” is basically an electro-hip hop version of Buddy Guy’s “What Kinda Woman Is This” and…well, it’s wonderful.

If anything is going to get me seriously into blues, it’s this. Amazing.

Pretty Lights Was My Gateway Drug

AKA, “The Story of How My Taste in Music Changed Drastically Over the Last 2 Years.”

PL

Photo via prettylightsmusic.com, obviously

At the beginning of 2013, my musical interests spanned pop, alternative rock, and rap. And that was pretty much it. Anything remotely electronic, which I called “house” or “techno” interchangeably, was solidly on the “yuck” list.

Also at the beginning of 2013, my friend and I bought tickets to a music festival taking place later that summer near Niagara Falls. The headliners were to be Girl Talk, Macklemore, Phoenix, and Pretty Lights. I was super pumped about the first two, mildly excited about the third, and, aside from having heard the name somewhere before, totally clueless about the last one.

I like to familiarize myself with an artist’s music before I go see them live, so, as I am wont to do, I downloaded a few Pretty Lights albums. I learned that Pretty Lights is not a band but a single person – Derek Vincent Smith, a producer from Colorado. I also learned that he has his own label, Pretty Lights Music, that his live shows do actually involve the use of pretty lights (lasers!), and that he has a fan base that is rabid with loyalty.

As I listened to Pretty Light’s music over the winter and spring, I also signed on for 2 more summer festivals that he was going to be performing at. All 3 of those festivals ended up falling through for one reason or another, but by that time I had long passed the point where I was just listening so that I would recognize a few songs at his shows. I was listening because his music is a unique blend of electronica and hip-hop that is somehow both soothing and energizing, ambient and engaging. His albums are poetically named (Glowing in the Darkest Night, Passing By Behind Your Eyes, and so on), and each song is a skillfully crafted mix of original compositions and samples. Everything sounds seamless but if you read any interview with him you’ll realize how insanely hard-working he is.

Unless you’re willfully ignorant of the internet and all its glory, it’s impossible to start liking a new band or artist and not learn about related ones. So as the months wore on, listening to Pretty Lights led me to other artists in the realm of electro-hip-hop, other musicians he had collaborated with, or just generally other producers that fans of Pretty Lights were likely to also be a fan of. By the time Halloween rolled around and I finally got an opportunity to see Pretty Lights live (RIP, Roseland Ballroom), my new taste in music had already led me to 2 EDM festivals and a ton of new favorite artists. Now, one year later, probably 90% of the music I listen to is electronic, though I’ve learned how to use “techno” and “house” appropriately and not just as blanket terms (though interestingly enough, neither of those represent the sub-genres of EDM that I really like). I’ve developed new music obsessions, made new friends who go to shows with me and teach me about the musicians they love, traveled to faraway locations for festivals, and overall have had a huge shift in where, how, and with whom I spend my free time.

And it is all, more or less, because of Pretty Lights. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Just to shake things up a bit, here are some Pretty Lights fun facts:

– He is 6’9″. I know this because I am borderline obsessed with googling people’s heights.

– His 2 cats have flattened ears and their own Instagram account, kitty_lights. They’re pretty much the only cats that I think are cute.

– Every week he puts out an hour-long mix called, “The Hot Sh*t”. Listen to them. They are wonderful.

– Pretty Lights at Roseland Ballroom was the only show that I have successfully forced any of my non-EDM friends to attend with me. They loved it. So would you (whoever you are). So get on board.

LATE EDIT: In the first version of this post I was completely remiss in not mentioning the fact that I took the photo that appears at the top of this blog at a Pretty Lights show. So thank you, Derek, yet again.