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The ‘EDM bubble’ may be bursting, but Pretty Lights remains a beacon of hope at the Santa Barbara Bowl

Pretty LightsBy Josh Herwitt //

Pretty Lights (Live) with Big Wild, Chris Karns //
Santa Barbara Bowl – Santa Barbara, CA
November 10th, 2016 //

Amid the myriad of tragedies that the music industry has endured in 2016, one of the major talking points has been the future of electronic dance music. EDM, as the kids like to call it these days, experienced a meteoric rise just a few years ago as laptops replaced turntables and guitars, transforming DJs into music’s newest and biggest rock stars with multimillion-dollar residencies in Las Vegas and headlining slots at music festivals all around the world.

But in the last eight months, the genre’s sustainability has started to be called into question, with several media outlets predicting that the EDM boom will soon come crashing down. One well-known music website, for instance, published an in-depth look at EDM’s demise back in April, already declaring it a thing of the past with a title like “Popping the Drop: A Timeline of How EDM’s Bubble Burst.” Soon after, LA Weekly followed suit, continuing the conversation with their own piece on why an industry worth $6.9 billion only a year ago has fallen so fast. Of course, it should also be noted that Forbes was the first to tap into the subject, exploring how the proliferation of EDM festivals in the U.S. hasn’t always equaled massive payouts for some concert promoters.

Still, for a culture born out of the UK’s underground rave scene, it shouldn’t be too surprising to hear that the EDM business has reached its ceiling. From simply a spectators’ point of view, watching someone entertain an audience with a computer and a mixer can only be engaging for so long, even if the song selection and stage production are superb (it can also depend on if any mind-altering substances were ingested at the time). That’s not to say dance music can’t or won’t survive. As oversaturated as the market is right now, there will always be a thirst for music that can make you move — it’s more that the genre will continue to evolve in new and different ways. And if there’s one electronic artist whom others should look to for inspiration, it’s unquestionably Pretty Lights.

Pretty Lights

Praised by legendary record producer Rick Rubin as “the face and voice of the new American electronic music scene,” Derek Vincent Smith started out making music under his Pink Floyd-inspired moniker with his close friend and frequent collaborator Michal Menert more than a decade ago. But unlike so many of his contemporaries, the Colorado native was carving his own path in his early 20’s. Influenced by hip-hop groups from the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest to Wu-Tang Clan and The Roots, Smith got his big break opening for jam bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9 (STS9), The Disco Biscuits and Widespread Panic at their late-night, after-party shows. Employing a colorful patchwork of hip-hop breakbeats and soul samples to build the foundation for his tracks, Smith’s process as well as his music in many ways felt like an extension of the classic trip-hop that DJ Shadow pioneered in 1996 with his seminal debut LP Endtroducing….. and RJD2 (read our interview with him here) later furthered on his initial studio album Deadringer.

Pretty Lights’ rise to stardom didn’t happen overnight. Releasing his music for free on his own record label Pretty Lights Music, it took years for Smith to build the worldwide following that he has today. Yet, what has always made him more than just merely a “DJ” or a “producer” is his propensity for incorporating live instrumentation into his live performances. By the time he began touring in 2007, he had enlisted drummer Cory Eberhard to join him for a run that would eventually include important U.S. festival appearances at Coachella and Ultra in 2010. Smith would go on to replace Eberhard with Adam Deitch, and while Deitch’s commitment to his other projects (Break Science, Lettuce) has curtailed his involvement in more recent years, he served as a key ingredient during the recording sessions for 2013’s A Color Map of the Sun, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronica Album.

Since then, Smith has made a conscious effort to bring other talented musicians into the fray. Touring with a live band for the first time in 2013 — something that few other EDM artists have done to this day — he quickly changed the way electronic music can be experienced live. Fast forward to last Thursday, and we were once again treated to an electrifying Pretty Lights show that was more than just Smith behind a pair of Macbook Pros and two Akai MPD32s. Making his debut at the majestic Santa Barbara Bowl, he once again showed why he isn’t your typical EDM act. With Chris Karns and Big Wild providing support, Smith hit the stage at 8 p.m. with his bandmates — Karns, Borham Lee, Brandon Butler and Alvin Ford, Jr. — and put on a show that dazzled both sonically and visually. What was most impressive, though, was seeing how much of the performance was improvised, as the band transitioned from one jam to another while dropping in a number of remixes here and there. And as I looked on from my seat in the stands, I couldn’t help but think about how much the show reminded me of all the times I’ve seen STS9 perform live. It only seemed fitting considering that the livetronia band helped give Smith his start back in the day, and with the “EDM bubble” about to burst (that is, if it hasn’t already), it’s hopefully an approach more electronic artists will gravitate toward in the future.

Setlist:
Still Night Jam
Maybe Tomorrow
Time Remix
One Day They’ll Know > ODESZA Remix > Break Science Remix
Let The World Hurry By
So Much In The Dark
More Important Than Michael Jordan
Bombay Bump
Total Fascination > Jam
Understand Me Now > Jam
Cold Feeling > Jam > Remix
There Is a Light
Jam
Where I’m Trying to Go tease
More Important Than Michael Jordan tease
I Can See It In Your Face > Jam
High School Art Class

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