Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Pretty Lights at Alfond Arena
On Friday, September 20th the eager crowd stood in long lines snaking all the way out to the parking lot. Something big was happening at Alfond Arena. Indeed, self-described electro soul hip hop producer Pretty Lights aka Derek Vincent Smith was in town to perform. A reported 2600 tickets were sold for the event, which “surpassed expectations” according to Sarah Goode, VP of Student Entertainment. I’d had a chance to speak with Derek about his new album “A Color Map of the Sun” on The Knix Mix the week prior, and I was happy to be in attendance to show my support. Derek, a Colorado native, was particularly looking forward to this show because a close friend and artist on the Pretty Lights label went to school here and raved about Maine at this time of year. Naturally, I agreed since I am a Maine native and highly prejudiced in this regard. I also highly recommended Derek try a Maine lobster while he was here, and he promised he would. The Pretty Lights performance at Alfond was one of the last of his summer touring cycle and the production was perfected on the festival circuit. Derek vowed Maine concertgoers would hear Pretty Lights “at the top of his game in a synchronized multimedia show.”
On The Knix Mix, I asked Derek about his inspiration for “A Color Map of the Sun,” which was recorded in Brooklyn, New Orleans and the Pretty Lights studio in Denver, Colorado. He composed all of the songs and wrote most of the lyrics. Interestingly, some of the lyrics are reworkings of old gospel songs and members of the Harlem Gospel Choir contributed vocals. Derek’s goal for the album was to make something “classic and timeless that is emotional and intriguing while also being interesting sonically.” While all the tracks on the album speak to him, he particularly likes “Color of My Soul,” which is the track that originally inspired the album. Pretty Lights has always employed a free download model, which has become “a philosophy of creation and artistic expression.” Still a surprising 15,000 copies of A Color Map of the Sun sold in the first week while another 100,000 copies were downloaded for free, placing “A Color Map of the Sun” high not only on the electronic charts but propelling it to number 24 on the Billboard Top 200. Derek is currently busy with his directorial debut, which will be a music video for a remixed version of “Color of My Soul.” He says that the song inspired the video and the video in turn can come back and re-inspire the song, which will make for “a cohesive piece of art.” “An audio, visual, emotional experience.”
We spoke about the inspiration for Pretty Lights’ characteristic style. Derek said his musical taste is deeply rooted in an early appreciation of vinyl and a love of hip hop. Different than a lot of producers who started with synthesizers or computers, the foundation on which Derek built his style is the record. He said he spent a lot of time digging through flea market record crates. Derek said he discovered he was especially drawn to a certain era of sound, particularly a 60’s soul sound, when sampling records. He also uses sounds from music genres, vocals and instruments, some bizarre, that span an entire century. He takes the best of everything and works it together in a new and interesting way. In a live setting Derek manipulates songs, using a number of tracks he and friends remixed off the album, mixing and producing on the fly, throwing a party with Pretty Lights tracks that make you “dance and drop hard.” The result is that each performance is fresh and innovative.
As the crowd poured into the arena, I took up a position in the middle rear of the floor, so I had an ideal view of the stage and could surreptitiously people watch. The concert goers, mostly college students, were doing their best to emulate the festive party atmosphere of an outdoor music festival despite the indoor arena locale. The uniform de rigueur appeared to be neon. Lots of neon. And glow accessories. Lots of glow accessories. The girls were bedecked in booty shorts and tank tops in shocking shades of pink or green, and the boys favored board shorts and brightly colored tees. To me, it’s a look more at home on the boardwalk at Old Orchard Beach, but what do I know? When I was at UMaine, all my friends wore black and listened to morose bands like The Cure and The Smiths. Our party music tended towards angry industrial like Ministry and Nitzer Ebb. Notably, a number of the girls were rocking a boho-chic headband around the forehead look while the boys favored trucker style caps. Emblazoned on more than one were the words “Sorry mom.” Indeed, there was twerking a la Miley Cyrus going on, which would give most parents a coronary.
One of the unique things about Pretty Lights’ music is that it is appreciated across music genre boundaries. What I like to call “alterna-kids” were represented at the show, though in lesser numbers than the neon clad masses. I was visually stalking a boy wearing all black from head to toe except for a red skinny tie. He had long New Wave style crimped bangs peeking out from a porkpie hat. He couldn’t have stood out more than if he was plucked from 1986 and deposited by a DeLorean onto the arena floor. It’s a look I love but haven’t seen much of since Flock of Seagulls topped the charts. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are not my age, and you should look up Second British Invasion immediately for reference. There was a group of hippie chicks wearing flowing dresses and sporting dreadlocks who admirably owned their corner of the floor, dancing ethereally in a manner I associate with the Cocteau Twins. Also seen were three people sporting multicolored light up LED gloves who joined together to face off in a battle of the neon fingertips. I’m not sure who won.
There was reserved seating at the show, but the majority of attendees took up a position on the floor. So many were pouring over the short wall between the seats and the floor that it reminded me a bit of that scene in World War Z where the zombies were spilling over the fortress wall. You know the one. A rousing chant of “USA! USA!” was heard before the lights went down. The crowd erupted when opening act, producer and DJ Kap Slap, started his set. Club remixes of popular songs had the crowd cheering. People danced, girls were hoisted on boys’ shoulders for a better view, and there was even some crowd surfing going on. There was a bit of a snafu before the second opener, producer and DJ 3LAU, went on. Dean of Students at UMaine, Dr. Robert Dana, announced to the crowd that the performance would not continue until people who held tickets for reserved seating got off the floor and into their seats per the fire marshal. Those who were allowed to remain on the floor were wearing the requisite wristbands. It took about 20 minutes and an impassioned plea from 3LAU, who had driven all the way from Las Vegas the night before after his flight was delayed, for the crowd to disperse. The mood was dampened slightly, but it wasn’t long after 3LAU’s set began that people were back in a party mood. 3LAU’s set included his original mix “Escape,” which was received with much enthusiasm.
When Pretty Lights took to the stage, he delivered on his promise to be at the top of his game. Derek’s gear was set up high on the stage and he is tall in stature, so he is a commanding force on stage. One has the impression of a genius maestro at play. The Pretty Lights stage production is a spectacle to behold in itself. At the Bonnaroo Music Festival in 2009 Derek was the first to unveil a video screen on stage, which was commonplace by the time he played at Bonnaroo for the 3rd time, this year, so he decided to “go backwards to go forwards” and take the video screen out. Instead he created interesting light effects using state of the art lighting fixtures and lasers, hidden disco balls and filament bulbs. He employed three dimensional laser shapes onstage instead of simply laser beams. The result is a visual delectation. Most importantly, Derek seemed to be having fun on stage, which was infectious, and the crowd responded in kind. When Pretty Lights’ headlining set was over, the crowd pleaded for an encore with a chant of “One more song!” Derek obliged with a 20 minute set. As I left Alfond to head to my car, I noted that most of the people leaving en masse were sweaty but upbeat. A definitive sign of a good show if you ask me. My only remaining thought was “Hmmm. I wonder if Derek ever did get to try a Maine lobster?”