It’s a Saturday night in downtown San Francisco, and there’s a palpable buzz in the air at the Warfield Theater, where Pretty Lights are set to conclude a three-night run here on 11 November. The brainchild of electronic music producer Derek Vincent Smith, Pretty Lights took the electronic dance music world by storm circa 2006-2013 with cutting-edge soundscapes that blended a variety of sub-genres to generate a uniquely infectious sound.
One of the things that made Pretty Lights stand out from the pack in the live setting was having a live drummer to add an organic element to the sound, which generated some synergy and mutual affinity with the “jamtronica” pioneers of Sound Tribe Sector 9. It was fitting then when Pretty Lights opened for STS9 at Red Rocks in Colorado in 2009 before going on to headline Red Rocks regularly throughout the next decade.
As an experimental tone scientist, Smith led Pretty Lights tours in various formats. He proved he could do it all on his own as a solo DJ on his 2011 tour, then returned and toured with a full band in 2013. But Smith would go on to put Pretty Lights on the shelf after his 2018 shows, disappearing from public view for five years. When he announced a comeback from that five-year hiatus earlier this year, excitable anticipation quickly ensued.
The 2023 tour has been winning acclaim with a quintet lineup that features drummer Alvin Ford Jr., turntablist Chris Karns, and keyboardists Borahm Lee and Michael Menert (also an original collaborator with Smith on 2006’s debut album Taking Up Your Precious Time.) Smith has described the current tour as “a newly constructed interdimensional soundship space system” that allows the sharing of real-time data and control signals to up the ante on improvisational possibilities. Hence, it seems Pretty Lights intend to push the creative envelope.
The first set starts in a downtempo direction as the crowd settles in. Still, it isn’t long before the group jam out on an impressive blend of sounds, including trip hop, glitchy techno, buzzing dubstep, electrofunk, and vintage soul over some rocking beats to get the enthusiastic audience revved up. Pretty Lights generate a futuristic vibe, yet they’ll also employ some retro samples at times, creating a unique blend of influences from the past with visions of the future.
The dazzling psychedelic light show is another feature of the performance, with a genuinely sensational mix of swirling colors, lasers, and other eye candy throughout the evening, just as the group’s name promises. There are times when the show starts to feel like a futuristic rave from a scene in a science fiction film, which makes the Warfield Theater feel like a very cool place to be here in this crazy year of our lord 2023.
A short set break enables everyone to refresh themselves and grab another beverage. The Warfield must again be credited here for continuing to stock the coveted Anchor Steam beer, which has become scarce around town since the legendary brewery sadly ceased production this summer. The second set starts more energetically and never lets up, with Pretty Lights throwing down one of the hottest dance parties of the year.
A peak moment occurs when Smith drops a sample of Grace Slick singing some of “White Rabbit”, infusing some of that old-school “San Francisco Sound” into what becomes a very heady jam. It feels like an appropriate nod to how San Francisco bands like the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead altered the landscape of the music world when they helped forge the psychedelic rock counterculture, with that revolutionary sonic wave going on to help inspire some of the psychedelia in the electronic dance music scene.
It’s only a couple of songs later when a sample of the Grateful Dead’s “Eyes of the World” materializes, winning a cheer of recognition for another hometown classic. The band had reportedly dropped a trio of Dead jams the previous night, so those who thought they’d missed out are elated to get another dose of the Dead here. Pretty Lights get crafty with it, as Jerry Garcia’s vocal sample is blended into what feels more like an STS9 kind of jam for a sublimely groovy mashup.
Another experimental moment occurs when Smith speaks about getting sounds from a subsonic network with biometrics devices of some kind. He uses it to generate a soul-soothing frequency that makes it feel like the theater has been immersed in a sonic bath for a vibrational cleanse of sorts. He describes playing with this technology as “fucking fun” and the sounds created as “dope”, and he ain’t wrong. Then there’s another song where he plays some bass to get a jam going that conjures a neo-noir vibe, as if playing in a club in Bladerunner 2049 or perhaps a John Wick flick.
There’s a peak moment during a “Par-tay” jam where the groovy vibes get the audience dancing so that the balcony starts to shake as if the Warfield Theater might lift off into space. This phenomenon has occurred before, though it typically happens during jam-rock shows where the balcony crowd dances instead of staying seated. It always feels like a special moment when it does happen, so it’s another feather in the cap to Pretty Lights for catalyzing the get-down. A crowd-pleasing “California Love” sample gets thrown into the mix, which increases the festive vibe further.
The premise of the Soundship Spacesystem Tour with a setup that operates as “a frequency-powered vehicle” feels tangible during this sequence. It seems as if Pretty Lights are following in the space jazz tradition of the Sun Ra Arkestra, where trailblazing keyboardist and futurist Sun Ra came to Earth in a spaceship that was powered by the vibratory energy of his own music in his classic 1974 Afrofuturist film Space Is the Place.
When the encore concludes sometime after midnight, it’s been a truly epic performance of more than three and a half hours. Pretty Lights have triumphed in a big way, and it’s great to have them back at a time when this chaotic world can use all the good vibes it can get.