Sonic extraordinaire Pretty Lights returned to Reno Tuesday night to a loving, sold-out crowd at the Reno Events Center, capping a spectacular run of shows through the Rockies and West Coast.
The last time I saw Pretty Lights, a.k.a Derek Vincent Smith, was at 2011 late-night set at Bonnaroo, his music blasting upon a sprawled out crowd that overflowed from the tent. He was perched in the middle of light towers and monitors that made him look like the mayor of some future, electronic city, filling the starry skies with light and sound. He debuted his seismic “I Know The Truth” that night and bumped deep into the early morning hours.
I remember his set so well because of how much I didn’t see. I must have been there no more than two songs, seated in the back among people trying to put their heads on straight and the hordes of Rooers traveling between shows, juggling my experience with my girlfriend’s. Her experience won out and we moved on to the next show I don’t remember, trying to find musical and existential common ground on a 700-acre farm in Tennessee.
The desert proved to be where I found redemption. Vincent Smith has become one of the biggest faces and voices of electronic music and he proved that last night with a pinnacle performance. Presented by local entertainment company Fresh Bakin,’ the show brought together a community of people who found harmony in dancing together to the pied piper. Many in the crowd had made their exodus from Burning Man and were squeezing in one more party before they reverted back to their post-playa selves. The stage looked out onto a large sea of feathers, bedazzled tights, glowing hoops and staffs and costumes and the night felt like a small, snapshot of what a night on the playa must be like, with Pretty Lights replacing the Man as the visual and spiritual centerpiece.
Vincent Smith pulled out all the stops on this tour by introducing both a touring band and a reimagined light show from lighting designer LazerShark. When the house lights were snuffed out, Pretty Lights’ live bandmembers Brian Coogan, Borahm Lee, Alvin Ford Jr. and Chris Karns assumed their respective positions around Vincent Smith, like spokes on a wheel. As the first galactic notes began to take form, a fluorescent blue wall of lasers encased the band as if it were an alarm system guarding precious jewels, changing into colors of the rainbow to match the beat. The light show was next-level design, bringing ethereal, visual texture to the night’s rhythms and melodies and the band brought to life to the soul samples that dominate Pretty Lights’ sound, a synergistic force of Smith’s making.
Even with all the figurative and literal bells and whistles added to the Pretty Lights experience, Vincent Smith’s music still is what reigned supreme. No one in the game can do what he can do. His ability to filter electronic aesthetics through the sounds of classic R&B and soul creates asmoked-out dance music that moves you in a very human, connective way.
On his most recent album, “A Color Map of the Sun,” Vincent Smith even created his own soul tunes with live musicians and recorded them to vinyl for which he then used as samples on songs.
The band was able to really bring the album to life on stage and it absolutely destroyed a version of “Let’s Get Busy,” crushing the throbbing mass of people with glitchy riffs. The give and take between Vincent Smith and the rest of the musicians also added a dynamic element to his songs that isn’t quite fulfilled when he is solo, pushing jams to their fullest potential.
The desert provided what the farm could not. Tuesday night I was in awe of what was before me. Rays of light painted my eyes in ways I’d never experienced. I moved my body and spirit in glorious tandem with the world around me. Pretty Lights is at a peak as both an artist and entertainer that was not yet tangible in 2011. I experienced its future. Vincent Smith capped off the night with the coda of “We Must Go On” and “Finally Moving,” two fan favorites from the earliest of the producer’s work. Moving is life and Pretty Lights lives to move music forward, to see what tomorrow brings.
– Garrett Bethmann