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Pretty Lights

by Ali Hibbs on November 8, 2012


It’s unlikely that many Pretty Lights fans noticed the banner hanging from the Times Union Center rafters—a mock “retired jersey” celebrating Billy Joel’s all-time box-office sales record at Albany’s biggest concert space. And so it’s furthermore improbable than anyone was making much of the fact that the TU Center was hosting its first EDM show—with ticket sales rivaling Pretty Lights’ Halloween show in Boston just a few nights prior—just a couple weeks after the city of Albany had shut down similar DJed events at the Washington Avenue Armory for not qualifying as “concerts.” The legions of glow-stick-spangled kids who packed the arena were simply having too much fun to notice the irony. But local policy makers and concert promoters probably should.

It’s old news that electronic dance music is the genre that gets kids out of the house—on a national and local level—but putting a three-DJ bill in the TU Center is still a milestone for the region. While Camp Bisco has long been evidence of the genre’s insatiable demand, this one proved that EDM audiences aren’t simply brain-dead kids on molly stripping to whatever dubstep DJ happens to be in town. Boulder, Co.’s Pretty Lights (AKA Derek Vincent Smith), and openers Bonobo and Eliot Lipp, tapped into a discerning corner of the rave nation more geared to breakbeats and hip-hop, organic beatcraft in the tradition of DJ Shadow and RJD2, with enough electro and sub-bass drops to taste. Smith’s audience hung on his set with the focus and intensity of any rock crowd, recognizing samples when they were introduced (most notably the blues vocal in “Finally Moving” and a remixed “Empire State of Mind”) and responding to his dexterous improvisation through the Ableton Live software, the same way crowds might hang on a guitar solo.

If DJ sets can alienate an unseasoned listener behind digital electronics, Pretty Lights’ stage show more than made up for the missing visual element. Surrounded by LED screens, skyscrapers and a glowing model of the Golden Gate bridge, the performer was true to his namesake. Anyone close enough to the soundboard was treated to a cool display of mutual improvisation as the light man animatedly matched Smith’s mixes with a sense-saturating display of lasers, projections and smoke.

Anyone with a stake in keeping the live music industry alive, uniting downtown Albany with the uptown student population and generally keeping Albany on the cultural map, should take note: Dinosaurs like Billy Joel aren’t going to do it any more, but something new is primed to take their place if you’re ready to let it happen.