It’s the second biggest week of the year in Austin and there’s a palpable energy of anticipation in the air for the upcoming weekend’s Austin City Limits Music Festival. But while Pretty Lights are slated to play a late afternoon/early evening slot at the festival itself, serious fans know that the ACL late show here on Thursday night is the place to catch the group in its native element.
But strike that because Pretty Lights aren’t a group anymore per se. Derek Vincent Smith has decided to move on without a drummer and the Jedi wizard of electronica DJs is now a one-man show. It might be seen as a puzzling move to fans who got into Pretty Lights in large part due to how they were more than just a DJ, with the live drummer providing an extra kick that most electronica acts lack. In recent interviews, Smith has spoken of how he feels the switch has freed him up to be more creative, since he can now improvise as he pleases without concern over whether the drummer will catch where he’s going. There’s something to that, but one could also argue that it takes a greater level of musical skill to work in tandem with a partner, and that this results in a sound that goes to a higher energy level thanks to the organic element.
Fans debate this before the show, but first up is the one and only Nas. The influential rapper is also appearing at the ACL Festival in his ongoing tour with Damian Marley, but here he’s opening up the show for Pretty Lights on his own. The sell-out crowd is clearly pumped for this special treat and Nas delivers an energetic set with inspiring lyrics demonstrating why he’s a cut above most of his peers in the rap game. “The World is Yours” is one such tune, while “Life’s a Bitch” countered by keeping it real but also encouraging fans to live in the moment. The signature line of “Life’s a bitch and then you die, that’s why we get high” received a rowdy welcome. 2003’s smash hit “I Know I Can” was another highlight, with Nas delivering a catchy and self-empowering message that towers over the repetitive lyrics about gangster life and materialism that dominate the hip-hop sector.
Smith takes the stage shortly after 11 PM and proceeds to kick out the jams for a solid two hours. The dazzling light show that gives his moniker its basis provides stellar eye candy of course, but it’s the infectious tunes that keep the energy flowing song after song. Smith has combined block rocking beats, groovy bass lines and psychedelic melodies and accents into a relatively unique and increasingly popular flavor that has seen his career skyrocket. It was just two years ago that he was opening for STS9 at Red Rocks, whereas 2011 saw him headlining the legendary venue himself. Selling out this show in Austin when there are numerous other shows happening around town is further testament to the surging momentum of Pretty Lights.
Smith’s dynamic sound clearly appeals to a wide demographic, resulting in a diverse crowd that becomes like one nation under a groove here tonight. The now classic “Sunday School” is an early highlight, igniting the crowd to get down over the funky groove and tag line of “Fuck ‘em, I didn’t wanna go to heaven anyway.” It seems as if Smith can do no wrong - the crowd is ready to party and he keeps the dance party going with one sizzling jam after another. “Take It to the Next Level” does just that, with friends crushing it together and strangers dancing with strangers. It’s hard to tell how different the sound is without a drummer, since Smith does such an ace job of keeping the beats and grooves seamlessly flowing.
He’s also a master at mashing up familiar tunes into his own groovy jams, which he does here by utilizing samples from Pink Floyd’s “Time” and Nirvana’s “All Apologies”. Both of these only increase the vibe, connecting the futuristic sound of Pretty Lights with some classic rock influences from the past. It’s always a plus to pay homage to those who have paved the way, and Smith has clearly done his homework on what gets his audience off.
Smith takes a moment to note that “Tomorrow’s not promised,” and then throws down “Hot Like Sauce” to fire up the crowd once more. The tune was Pretty Lights’ earliest charting hit and it’s a song that never fails to get a crowd going. Samples in the song range from “Life is too short to have sorrow” to “Go hyphy in this bitch”, which the crowd certainly does. There’s a positive energy level that permeates the entire set, carrying the audience on an ecstatic cloud that lifts the soul. “Finally Moving” provides another perennial peak moment. Smith takes the bluesy three-chord progression from “All Along the Watchtower” and tricks it out with all manner of extra psychedelia and sonic bells and whistles, resulting in one of the most memorable tracks of the 21st century so far.
Nas never sits in unfortunately, which the crowd was clearly clamoring for. But Smith notes at one point that he thinks Nas is already back at the hotel. As to whether the show is better and more creative without a drummer, it’s hard to say. Pretty Lights delivered a scintillating set with a drummer at La Zona Rosa to close out the festivities at SXSW 2010 in Austin last year, yet tonight’s show is clearly on a similar level and perhaps higher. Only time will tell whether Smith decides to go back to using a drummer, but it will certainly be interesting to watch how his sound progresses or not.
“Sometimes things go bad, but ya gotta stay with that shit,” notes Smith in a moment of clarity amidst the revelry. The sentiment surely speaks volumes to many amidst the challenging economic Depression of 2011 that the mainstream media still fails to acknowledge. But with the uplifting music of all of Pretty Lights’ albums available for free download at their website, a musical antidote to challenging times is easily accessible to all.