Three. That’s how many times I shed manly tears at the Greek Theatre last Sunday. The first time was when I was told that they couldn’t find my tickets at the box office. It nearly rolled off my cheek before the tickets were found (never made it past my upper lip). The other two times were purely the fault of Above & Beyond’s beautiful and emotional acoustic set.
For the uninitiated, Above & Beyond is a group of trance producers that hail from the UK and Finland. File them under your “music-to-remedy-crippling-depression” folder if it isn’t already full of happy hardcore anthems and Weird Al records. They’ve made their name writing uplifting anthems for ravers across the world for nearly 15 years. As such, they’ve amassed a massive and varied following. Mostly, though, they’re young adult types that cut their teeth on this type of music in the mid-00s.
Put simply, they’re more comfortable in glowing parachute pants and bedazzled bikini tops than evening gowns and blazers. The Greek, though, is fancy. It’s high-brow. The result was an amusing mix of young Angelenos dressed to the nines in suits and evening wear rubbing shoulders with kids in hoodies and crop-tops rolling their faces off. (Side note: Don’t do drugs and be annoying at The Greek Theatre. This isn’t EDC guys.)
For the most part, though, the kids settled down when the show began. Zoe Johnston, Annie Drury, and Alex Vargas joined Above & Beyond to provide vocals for some their biggest hits. Annie Drury’s performance of “Satellite” was one of my favorites from the night. Alex Vargas filled in the male vocal on songs that would have normally been sung by Richard Bedford, who was conspicuously absent. I have to admit, I did not miss him. Vargas’ closing performance of “Sun and Moon” was every bit as touching as the original. Unexpectedly, Skrillex even made a cameo to play the guitar on “Black Room Boy.” I don’t know if there’s an answer to the question of ”Why?” this happened, but it was an entertaining shakeup.
So how does a trio of trance DJs sound live? Strangely, a lot like the Cinematic Orchestra or Zero 7. That shouldn’t be as surprising as it is, but on the surface, A&B has little in common with either.
Both Zero 7 and the Cinematic Orchestra rely on jazzy rhythms and traditional song structure for their music. Above & Beyond tends to rely on traditional songwriting as well, but that kind of structure gets lost in the pounding, ever-shifting soundscapes of trance. Stripped of synthesizers and effects, the tempo isn’t so far off from those instrumental artists. Slow it down a notch, mix in a string quartet, add some jazzy trumpets, and boom, you’ve got that London downtempo sound.
Swapping the vocals of Annie Drury and Zoe Johnston for Sia Furler and Sophie Barker would not have ruined this show. That said, I’m ecstatic that they didn’t. Zoe Johnston in particular was a triumph. Her performance of “You Got to Go” brought me to tears. Not of sadness or longing, but of emotional buoyancy. The lyrics to the song themselves are uplifting in the way that Above & Beyond’s music always is, but the pared-down, slowed-down rendition we heard that night was easily one of my favorite moments in music of this year. They were happy tears.
A third bit of eye leakage happened when Tony McGuiness took center stage to perform a new song that they had been working on. It was clearly deeply personal and honest. Too honest. Like a lot of other musicians, A&B makes a habit of using real-life as the main driver for their lyrical content. Where they differ is in their appeal to emotion. I didn’t want to feel as much as I did in that moment.
Ultimately, that’s what Above & Beyond does. They write music to stir the emotions of people who haven’t yet been jaded by the persistent negativity that the world forces the average person to endure on a day-to-day basis. Their music is, at its core, uplifting. Listening to them play their music outside of a festival environment actually clears up why they do it in that environment in the first place. I’m willing to wager they could’ve been successful without going the dance music route, but it would’ve been missing out on the big picture.
Electronic music culture (trance, specifically) tries to separate the place where you experience the music from your normal experience of reality. For a moment, no matter how brief, you’re free from the stress of basic life and allowed a moment of clarity, or ecstasy, or whatever. What’s important is that your body and mind are reminded that there is a different way to feel.
That, my friends, is a powerful and valuable thing.
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