Pretty Lights at Ultra Music Festival, March 23
photo by Ian Witlen
Standing elbow to elbow last night with people going out of their minds in front of the live stage, it was easy to forget that Pretty Lights' first Miami show was at the Vagbaond, just over two years ago. In October 2009, the then-cult Colorado producer born Derek Vincent Smith was still a club act for a smaller but fierce circle of fans largely from the jamtronica (or whatever you want to call it) scene.
Since then, his rise has been nothing short of meteoric, thanks to tireless touring and staggering popularity on the festival circuit. His warm, electronic, vaguely crunchy sound clearly has mass appeal -- as he headlined the festival's amphitheater, hordes of sunburned, tank top types descended. (It's perhaps a comment on the electronic music scene at large that Greek-letter clothing is now a common sighting at these kinds of huge events -- in the past, that would have been a mark for derision. Hmmm.)
Anyways, Pretty Lights himself is still a one-man act on a huge stage, keeping things relatively simple instead of trying to flesh out his act (yet) with a live band. It's something he should probably consider, but for now, it's just Smith, manning a Mac Book and some drum pads, sequencers, and a few other gadgets. Most of the "live" experience here, then, comes from an involved light show, the vibe of the dancing crowd, and the strangely overwhelming power of his music.
From the beginning strains, the overall mood of Smith's minor-key, smoky sounds were positively apocalyptic. All the songs seemed to build to some kind of epic explosion that never quite happened, creating a sense of tension throughout the whole set. There were chirpy vocal samples cutting in and out, stuttering hip-hop vocal loops, and an overall electrified boom-bap that just wouldn't quit. There were rains of water and beer, a bro who danced his way onstage and got wrestled off, and a guy dressed like a koala slow-winding behind me. In a word, it was completely psychedelic, even if you were sober.