Sandwiched between my raucous Friday night with The Hives and a gluttonous Sunday morning at the annual Port of Los Angeles Lobster Festival, the Illumination Tour’s show at The Shrine Auditorium was an event I had been anticipating for months as the electronic music grapevine has been buzzing about the tour’s Colorado-based headliner, Pretty Lights, and his stunning production. The chance to see his sub-headliner for the LA stop, legendary turntablist DJ Shadow, was an equally potent draw since he’s somehow managed to elude me for the past several years. Imagineably, the idea of two combining forces for an unforgettable night of delicious beats and bass was irresistible.
In a scene dominated by house and trance, both acts have made their mark in modern electronic music with hip-hop-tinged beats and frequent sampling. Pretty Lights has been Derek Vincent Smith’s moniker for the past six years, and I was first introduced to the project a couple of years back when my friends at POSSIBLE worked on the music video for his song “Future Blind.”
Since then, he’s become a fast-rising star in the electronic scene, building an impressive resume of festival performances that includes Bonnaroo, Stereosonic, Ultra Music Festival, Coachella, and the Electric Daisy Carnival. His latest crusade, The Illumination Tour, consists of stops in 50+ cities over the course of four months. Somehow, Smith still finds the time to run his record label, Pretty Lights Music, through which he and the other artists on the label’s roster provide their music to fans for free (donations accepted but not required). I gather Smith is never bored.
Josh Davis, AKA DJ Shadow, has been a mainstay in LA’s electronic music scene for over a decade, but horrible timing and prior commitments have derailed my plans to see him live for the past several years. I managed to catch a snippet of his set at Coachella 2012 but only in passing; after I finished cursing the God of Coachella Set Time Designations for scheduling him at the same time as Modeselektor, I pre-comitted myself to seeing DJ Shadow’s next LA stop at any cost.
While modern electronic music has been dominated by push-play-and-strike-a-Jesus-pose DJs, Davis has distinguished himself as an old-school turntablist and master sampler. Tracks from his albums make use of numerous samples from a veritable potpourri of genres, and yet they never sound cluttered. He masterfully blends all the elements together to form diverse yet cohesive tracks.
Following longer than expected lines and the general clusterfuckery involved in attempting to find your friends in a venue suffering from severe text lag, I made it inside the auditorium in the nick of time for DJ Shadow’s set. Unfortunately this meant I had missed opening sets from Marty Party and SuperVision, but all was forgotten as soon as Davis touched his decks.
DJ Shadow executed his set meticulously, furiously working his synthesizer alongside his expertly timed scratches. In the second half of his set, he added a couple electronic drum pads to the mix and threw in the occasional drum solo to accentuate his mixing. If on-stage multitasking was an Olympic sport, DJ Shadow would be in the running for gold. Refreshingly absent from his equipment setup: a laptop. As live track mixing and turntablism are, unfortunately, becoming increasingly rare in the modern electronic scene, DJ Shadow’s set was a breath of fresh air. His track selection was riddled with a healthy mix of popular favorites and things I had never heard before (but loved).
The audience’s anticipation leading into the final set of the night was palpable. Although DJ Shadow had provided a hefty serving of incredible music, the crowd was clearly clamoring for more. Five minutes prior to the start of Pretty Lights, a countdown was displayed on the screen in the background. As the countdown was winding to a close, it began to feel a bit like New Year’s Eve. “Five! Four! Three! Two! One! AHHHHHHHH!!!!!”
Photo by Ed Kwon
Pretty Lights definitely did his name proud. Cascading lasers blanketed The Shrine, eliciting choruses of “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience. LED squares flashed in various columns erected on stage, giving the illusion of city skyscrapers at night. His DJ booth was correspondingly outfitted in LEDs that mirrored those of the columns, and there was, of course, the customary screen behind the artist that projected a visual story synchronized to the music. As a whole, it was absolutely stunning to behold. They guy behind me was frequently heard saying “ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW?!” in response to the visuals elements.
But gorgeous visuals alone does not a good concert make. Luckily, Pretty Lights had the musical chops to back up the lofty production. The overall musical quality of his set was a departure from the material he normally produces on his albums and EPs, drawing more from dubstep and electro. Still, the familiar sound of Pretty Lights’ hip-hop backbeats and samples were prevalent throughout the set, so I never once forgot who I was listening to. Though my personal preference would have been for a set more reminiscent of his studio releases, I applaud Smith for daring to experiment with new sounds. I can even venture so far as to say that those aforementioned dubstep and electro elements contributed greatly to how marvelously the visuals tied in to the experience.
When all is said and done, I left the Shrine extremely pleased. Both artists exceeded the lofty expectations that months of anticipation and several missed opportunities had built for me. While the visual aspect obviously played a part in the appeal factor, the bang-up quality of musicianship present in both sets was plainly evident to all those who were fortunate enough to have witnessed this magical event.
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