Story by Meghan Chancy Ledington
Photos by Krystle Blackburn
To cap a summer headlining some of the nation’s biggest festivals, Colorado native Derek Vincent Smith, better known as the mastermind behind Pretty Lights, celebrated his highly anticipated homecoming with two nights of sold out shows at The Fillmore Auditorium in Denver and world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison. Bringing along his PLM crew, Michal Menert and the newly-signed Gramatik for both nights, as well as dubstep pioneer Skream, and exciting up-and-comers, Big K.R.I.T., Supervision and Paul Basic, Smith gave us a weekend to remember.
Night one featured Pretty Lights and friends from his label, Pretty Lights Music, throwing down new tracks and remixes for their die-hard fans at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in downtown Denver. Floor-shaking beats layered over electrifying synth melodies and sing-a-long hip hop vocal samples had the ravers crushing the dance floor, hands raised most of time and “wooing” at the top of their lungs to show their hometown hero some Colorado love.
The Fillmore’s throng of crystal chandeliers glowed purple above, creating a classy ambiance while costumed fans clad in neon spandex, flashy sequins, furry wigs, candy-colored beads, and glow sticks danced below on the crowded main floor. Due to the max capacity, there was no room for entertaining hula hoopers and poi spinners. The raised walkway along the right wall of portraits of previous famed performers was the escape for those who wanted more space, like Dom and Jeremy of the local electronic duo Big Gigantic who partied with their crew and showed their support for their CO homies. The balcony, the only place where general admission guests could sit, was the savior of my high-heeled feet towards the end of the night. The VIP sections were sparse, with many brave girls sneaking in to hang over the railings and dance to part of their favorite song before a staffer shined a flashlight on their empty wrists and showed them their way out. The temperature was rising, forcing some to give up on making it to the front, or even the main floor, escaping to the raised right side, the balcony, the gated smoker’s area or even bailing on the show altogether. Security was high, with an armed police officer walking around and staffers everywhere shining flashlights in faces of smokers and amateur videographers using smart phones like myself.
Smith opened the show with “World of Illusion”, the first track from his 2009 album Passing By Behind Your Eyes and then delved straight into the ten-minute perpetual jam “Take The Sun Away” from his widely embraced 2008 double album Filling Up The City Skies. The smiling crowd showed substantial appreciation for the uninhibited party atmosphere that Pretty Lights was bringing the night before the highly anticipated Red Rocks experience. Smith called out humbling facts between songs and told us how much he had looked forward to performing for his homegrown CO family. Before playing a brand new song that was chill and melodic with a smooth romantic feel, he told us only his girlfriend had heard it and that she liked it, so hopefully we would too! He took us back to his hip-hop roots with hard-hitting remixes that got the crowd throwing both arms high, proving that newer styles like dubstep are cool and all, but nothing can beat the basics at their best!
Besides sampling his unreleased tracks like the well-known “I Know The Truth”, Smith made sure to give us a taste from each of his body of works with favorites “How We Do”, his remix of Kanye West’s “All of the Lights,” “Hot Like Dimes,” “Understand Me Now,” and “Up & Down I Go.” Towards the tail end of the show he played a chilling mashup of Radiohead’s "Everything In Its Right Place" and “Idioteque” with Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.” He finished his second set with his guilty pleasure groove “I Can See It In Your Face” as the lyrics whisked across the LED panels and dedicated the last song “You Know I’m No Good” to the late Amy Winehouse. Excited for the following night, he asked how many of us would be at Red Rocks, and we yelled in response as the enthusiasm spread wildly. With Red Rocks’ capacity at nearly ten thousand, the crowd would be more than double the packed house at The Fillmore.
Night two began much earlier, as most Red Rocks’ veterans show up hours in advance to tailgate in the parking lots and meet friends. With no reentry, many attendees miss the openers in order to make the most of their pregame. I went in as 24-year-old rapper Justin Scott, better known as Big K.R.I.T. (King Remembered In Time) was performing. Since Smith came up in hip-hop/rap before being turned onto the rave scene, his chance to showcase the talents of the Mississippi native was a heartfelt throwback to his own beginnings. The seating area was about a third full, nestled between the two larger-than-life vertical red rocks that give the natural amphitheater its majestic appearance and otherworldly vibe. Every time I enter Red Rocks, I’m overcome with the need to walk the hundred-plus steps to the very top, look out towards Denver’s skyline, and appreciate the cultural significance of the venue.
Next up on a smaller table to the right of Smith’s intimidating LED setup was recently signed PLM artist Gramatik, who was accompanied by Alex, a live guitarist who was the only person to play an instrument on stage that day. Gramatik, aka Slovenian producer Dennis J, invited the crowd to record the beginning of his set and post it on YouTube so he could make a mashup video giving credit to all the donors. He played tracks from his first release with PLM, Beatz and Pieces Vol.1, including the funky and soulful “So Much For Love” which got the crowd on their feet and prepared for the next track, “Liquified”: the raw bass-loving beat that forces you to get low, from his 2010 album No Shortcuts.
Skream (born as Oliver Jones in London, England) came on strong and intense, yelling indecipherable words in his British accent to get the crowd amped while jumping around, himself. He botched a couple of songs, missing a drop completely and cutting off the sound in order to start over, generating groans from the audience. Jones switched from remix to remix every couple of minutes; it was hard to tell if he realized the show was not running as smooth as Pretty Lights fans are used to. His set started with a resounding siren lasting over a minute then into his remix of Benga’s "Smack my Bitch Up," Magnetic Man & Redlight’s "What You Banging on About," Giant’s "Iron Man," and Doctor P’s "Big Boss." He raged hard, dropping hard-hitting dubstep beats, hyphy club bangers and mesmerizing buildups that sometimes ended in silence. Two Rusko remixes of “Hold on” and “Everyday” were crowd pleasers, which lead to Jones shouting “Now this is the time to go f-ing crazy!” before he dropped his hard-hitting dubstep remix of Flux Pavilion’s “Bass Cannon,” He asked who knew the words to Benny Benassi’s “Cinema” as he cut out the sound, leaving few to sing-a-long, before leaving nothing to be desired with his version of Skrillex’s remix. One of the only original songs that Skream played was his recent single “Anticipate” featuring Sam Frank. Overall, the comments I heard around me were positive, yet confused, with some saying “He’s all over the place isn’t he?”
Michal Menert came on for his third set in the two nights of shows just before his childhood friend, Derek Smith, was set to hit the celebrated stage. Menert’s blend of smooth, romantic, and even sexy melodies combined with devilish bass lines and powerful, organically crafted beats gave off a vibe almost as dynamic as his energizing stage presence. Raising his arms and leaning backward as if his music is taking control of his body, Menert displays the passion in his music as his adoring fans sway and smile to his rich, musical style. As Smith ascended his LED tower and his final song came to an end, Menert gave “big ups” to the openers, closing with “and my man Derek about to blow some minds...” as the crowd went wild with the realization of the two-hour blowout that was about to ensue.
Opening with the first minute of “I Know The Truth” which he returned to in the encore, Pretty Lights went straight into an unthinkable array of favorites including “Total Fascination,” “Still Night,” and “Forever Lost.” His album, Filling Up The City Skies, may arguably be the most beloved by fans and Smith alike, as he satisfied our desire for hits “Hot Like Sauce,” “Aimin’ at Your Head,” the easily recognizable “More Important Than Michael Jordan,” the rap stylings of “How We Do,” downtempo chillout “Solamente,” “Who Loves Me,” and “Up & Down I Go.” Smith kept us on our tip toes, surprising us with his shining representation of the self-proclaimed “Colorado style” that is all its own. Just a tad removed from the extremes of heavy dubstep and floating trance. Instead, Smith’s original style is the perfect balance that blends flowing melodies, warm instrumentals, thrilling vocal samples that make you want to smile at their perfect placement, and those hard-hitting beats that force your body to dip and sway with the man himself, up atop his impressive stage setup that rivals the best in the business. A glowing 3D city of LED screens, a rainbow of laser beams hovering in the smoke-filled air, swirling images, spinning cubes, black and white tiles twisting into each other, dancing lyrics, famous faces and countless strobes that mesmerized the senses are just a few of the magical displays that is the Pretty Lights experience. Our eyes were bombarded with so many pretty lights flashing in every direction that Derek disappeared behind the overwhelming display of intelligent design for even minutes at a time, only to reappear as the place went dark with a single white spotlight shining down on his raised hand.
Smith gave us a few more spoonfuls from his upcoming album, with at least 6 new songs and remixes, including his version of country and a remix that sounded like Michael Buble’s “Feeling Good.” His 2010 remixes were sensational, with Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle” causing a tidal wave of applause and cheers as the lasers and strobes took a break, allowing for the green, yellow, and red star patterns to swirl around the large red rock behind the stage. Pink Floyd’s “Time” took our breath away as a legion of video cameras lit up the crowd. Smith’s most famous remix is likely James Brown’s “Finally Moving” which captures audiences as soon as the first beats ring out, bringing about the chorus where you can’t help but sing the high vocal and smile as your voice cracks to “Get a feeling that I never, never, never, never had before. Oh, no. I get a good feeling, yeah.” Smith finished out with Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” remix.
It’s clear that the PLM label’s free music download model is working and reaching fans across the world, as many attendees recognized tracks from each of Smith’s 3 full albums and 7 EPs that he’s released in the last 5 years, as well as from Michal Menert’s and Gramatik’s recent releases. I’ve concluded that my YouTube videos of Skream are getting the most hits because of the cost and lack of ease to download Skream’s music and not because of any favoritism. PL fans come to his shows because they know it will be a good time, every time. At any point during both shows, you could look out at the crowd in any direction and see a thousand hands in the air and smiles between those who connect. The best part was being able to feel the love for what he’s created as he danced, smiled and threw his hands out to reach for us before pulling them spastic-ally back in as the fresh Colorado style that Pretty Lights has created raged through his body and poured out the pounding speakers and into the heart of Red Rocks.
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