OK, I admit it. I just don’t get it. EDM. Electronic Dance Music.
Sure, I get the concept. Hard driving beats creating a party atmosphere that people can dance to. In my day they called it “disco.” Except disco is not even close to the same thing. Disco, in spite of its incessant beat, still had elements of soul, funk, and musicianship at its core. I don’t see the musicianship in EDM.
I suppose that is part of the problem. I am an “old guy.” But I never saw myself as a “get off my lawn” old codger stuck in a musical rut that never left high school. As a music photographer and reviewer, I have always kept on top of the latest bands and musical genres. Live EDM however, escaped me.
I had brushes with it. I recall photographing Bauer of “Harlem Shake” fame at SXSW some years back at the Scoot Inn. He stood in front of his computer bobbing his head while pretending to turn the knobs on his mixer while obviously playing pre-recorded tracks on his MacBook. I was not impressed.
This was always the problem for me. It’s not the music that I didn’t get, it was the success of the live performances that, to me at least, weren’t live. Where is the musicianship in turning the volume up and down between pre-recorded tracks?
I see the talent in the initial creation of these tunes. I can appreciate that a computer can be a musical instrument and composing tool. But the fact is, these are not being recreated in a live setting. They are just playing their pre-recorded jams.
Which brings me to the Steve Aoki show at Stubb’s Amphitheater on Wednesday night.
The show started early for a Stubb’s how -over two hours early with the first performers, Party Pupils, going on-stage at 5:30. They were followed by Toronto’s Grandtheft and then California DJ and Producer Deorro. Each of these acts seemed to be on their game, with the audience bouncing along to the mix, hands held high in the air and doing as they were told.
Grandtheft checked all of the stereotypical boxes for me and my preconceived notions of an EDM DJ. He mixed in a lot of bonafide hits, getting strong reactions from the crowd as they recognized a Beastie Boys or Eminem tune. To me, it was a live jukebox that skipped and stuttered as it bounced between records. But the crowd was loving it.
Deorro was a bit different, mostly eschewing other musician’s hits and creating beats and grooves that were more Latin in flavor. He still mixed in the expected drops, but it was different enough that it kept my interest. The introduction of beach balls into the crowd added to the party atmosphere.
Desiigner followed with a set that was a complete 360 to the DJs prior. He was a rapper – not an EDM DJ – and possessed a fierce energy that had the crowd going wild. In fact, the stage could not control his energy as he continuously stood on the barricade to directly interact with his fans. He crowd-surfed, threw water, and at one point ripped off his shirt and threw it into the crowd. He showed a real affinity for the Austin crowd, referring to getting his big break at SXSW “where it all started!”
As Designer left the stage, the roadies went to work unveiling the set for the headliner, EDM legend Steve Aoki. The sweaty, sold-out crowd was perfectly primed for what was to come.
As the house lights shut down and the stage set erupted in a wash of color, Aoki took the stage and it was pretty much on. He took his position behind a custom LED setup that displayed his knocked-out smiley-face logo.
What impressed me with Aoki’s set was his connection with the audience. Not content to stay behind the boards, he frequently came out front and worked the crowd, building the excitement as he went along. It was a non-stop barrage of heavy beats, syncopated drops and catchy hooks that were complemented visually with a colorful light show, CO2 cannon bursts, and sprayed champagne. At one point he threw cakes out into the crowd, and the crowd went absolutely wild. In fact, there wasn’t a moment during Aoki’s set when the crowd stopped singing and bouncing.
The oddest part of the night was when Aoki brought a local celebrity up to the stage to take a photo with the crowd. No, it wasn’t a local musician. It was cyclist Lance Armstrong! WTF??
The show ended with the opening acts returning to the stage, who all took a bow for a very tired and appreciative crowd.
I still don’t completely get it. But I must admit that I had a good time. And I guess that’s the point. It is NOT a live musical performance in the traditional sense. It is a party. And when you look at it through that lens, you cannot help but enjoy yourself.
Maybe these kids are onto something