Photos by: Glen Little II (GLII Photography)
Story by: Sterling Martin
The Red Rocks Amphitheatre is without a doubt one of the most breathtaking venues in the country. As for Derek Vincent Smith and the entire Pretty Lights movement, this place is near enough to Fort Collins, Colorado to be called home.
The team's sold-out, two-night run at Red Rocks August 12 and 13 was the second of five stops on what he’s branded as the “Episodic Festival”— a series of two-night events that will “tell a story about an experiment while also being an experiment in telling a story,” as Smith himself put it.
I have witnessed an incredible story unfold as I’ve watched fans of PL music come together and connect with each other at concerts and online and truly affect and change each other’s lives for the better. It has helped me really recognize the importance of shared experience and even more so, the potential.
The idea behind the Episodic Festival came from thinking about this experience like a story unfolding and how this story might continue.
I’ve had a vision like a story in my head for too long that I haven’t really known how to tell.
It’s almost like the telling and the discovery of the story which must overlap and intertwine and feed back into each other for the plot to twist and be twisted into existence.
And that’s an experience I know I want to share with all of you.
In Smith’s introduction for the Episodic Festival, he also noted each episode there will be a video prelude released online that visually explores a different idea and theme for that stop. On top of this, “the PL Live band will record select live cuts onto a single cassette tape,” which will be released to fans who are then encouraged to sample and create from those takes.
“I think the whole concept of the Episodic Festival is a really ingenious way of tying together and shedding light on the elements of how music has brought people together in such a beautiful way — I am so grateful to have been able to share in the experience of it,” said an eager Maddy O’Neal of her involvement over the weekend.
Denver’s Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom was home to an official pre-party on Thursday night before the weekend kicked off. This Super Best Records throwdown starred the likes of Artifakts, O’Neal, The Party People, and Unfold, who all seemed to be in great spirits with smiles on each face.
Both Artifakts and Maddy O’Neal are also officially slotted throughout the Episodic Festival—one of Maddy’s sets being the following day at the Rocks.
“You always want to try to tell a story and make the vibe flow from start to finish, so I probably changed that up a million times before the weekend before I felt it was right,” O’Neal said about preparing for her back-to-back sets. “It was cool to play the pre-party the night before though because it really put me in the zone.”
She brought out a lively Aaron Joseph Newman to sit in with her on a track they made together called "Unexpected” from her latest release Introspect.
“It's actually a pretty funny story,” O’Neal said. “We had been talking for the past like 2 years about collaborating because he used to be roommates with my brother’s best friends in Nashville a while back and about a month ago we sat down and made that track.”
After her performance, an impressive one from Marvel Years got the crowd amped properly. He was joined by veteran drummer Colby Buckler, who did nothing but add more energy and give a more raw sound to the performance. Manic Focus even came out for a track and led the crowd through a chant or two. That night, he would go to headline the official after party at the Gothic Theatre with the help of Flamingosis and the cut-master Mikey Thunder.
By the time the sun started to disappear, the city lights of Denver and the area surrounding the amphitheater rested in the backdrop of the stage. The new, more compact band hit the stage with an ominous introduction that grabbed every listener, forcing them into a trance without any intention of letting go.
Joined by Alvin Ford Jr. on the drums, Brian Coogan and Borahm Lee (Break Science), on the keys and Chris Karns on the turntables, Derek Smith and the band were more crisp than ever (for lack of a better word). From the second they began until the band left the stage nearly three hours later, they kept everything together and in complete synchronization. Both nights they played straight through the scheduled set break until the minutes before midnight.
The first 25 minutes of the set on Night 1 was all entirely new, the second half of which being an incredible jam session full of spacey vibes. They started, however, with an unreleased track that Derek’s social media sites posted as his performance got underway. It was labeled as the second episode’s prelude to Red Rocks, titled “There Is A Light.”
With less people in the band, there is more room in the mix for each person to play their part with Smith as the ringleader.
“Being that there's no guitar or horns this time around, it allows me to find more samples of those instruments to incorporate,” Chris Karns informed me. “Plus there is a lot more room in the music for me to drop vocals and play more of a leading role.”
This new role for the turntablist complements Smith’s music perfectly in the live setting. A few old-school favorites were given ridiculous revamps, like “Still Night,” “Easy Way Out” (a personal favorite) and even a “How We Do” super remix.
The rest of the setlist consisted of groovy, filthy and downright sexy electro-jam renditions. “Out of Time” and “Prophet” standout specifically, most likely because each lasted nearly 15 minutes — and not a second through of any this did they lose momentum.
Organic is a word that comes to mind when trying to describe the sound he has managed to pull off with this new band. The mixture of Derek’s modular analog synths and Karns' scratching seems to be one of the most appealing things to me, simply because of how Smith’s recorded music invites and compliments this style.
“Our styles match up perfectly — his music is so funky and melodic, and I just try to add a little cherry on top,” Karns noted.
The addition of live instruments is (mostly) always a logical move for an artist because of their potential to “jam.” However with Karns scratching alongside them and Derek, seemingly perfect blends of electronic and hip-hop elements have been incorporated into the live setting, making the freshest sound I’ve heard yet from Pretty Lights.
Karns would go on to get things popping first on night two with a solo set of his own. He’s a world-renowned DJ who offers just about anything a hip-hop head could want. The same can be said of the second opener Supervision, who reps the Pretty Lights Music record label. His set was fun and got the crowd as prepared as they could possibly be before nightfall. Jay Fresh was also brought out for a couple tracks, which definitely helped propel the energy.
The Pretty Lights remix of “Time” by Pink Floyd served as the band’s fitting introduction on night two. By the time they made their way through the next couple songs — “Gold Coast Hustle,” “City of One” and “So Bright” among them — it was evident the second night would be more geared toward the classics and hits.
More than anything what became clear on this two night event, was that Derek has figured out how to seamlessly incorporate his modular analog “experiments” into the performance.
Throughout the New Year’s run and various secret sets over the past year, he’s gone with a completely fresh and innovative way of utilizing the analog gear in sets that were far from ordinary. Smith’s idea was to create a one-of-a-kind “electronic-jam” experience for the listeners, again with the help of Karns on the turntables and Mux Mool playing loop-free on the drum pads.
It seems as if these were only practice, though, toward delivering a Pretty Lights sound that was nearly perfected in time for Red Rocks. A great deal of these jams came packaged within the classics, as heard in the mind-melting 13-minute take on “More Important Than Michael Jordan.” I also have a newfound appreciation (yet again) for “Hot Like Sauce.” What’s more is that “Finally Moving” has never felt so appropriate as an outro to a set.
Following the Pretty Lights extravaganza was a final afterparty, headed by Break Science and Supervision at the Gothic Theatre.
The weekend seemed nothing short of magical for everyone in attendance. As O’Neal put it, “From feeling the love from the crowd, to having my mom and brother there to finally get to see what I've been working towards for the past 6 years, it was a night I will never forget.”
She continued saying that Red Rocks was an end goal for herself at one point.
“Like, when I play Red Rocks I can die happy now. But what do you do when you reach one goal? You dream bigger.”
Dreaming bigger is exactly what Derek seems to be doing as well, as he prepares to reunite with the PL family this weekend in Telluride, CO for the third and arguably most anticipated stop of his Episodic Festivals.
As if these weren’t enough, you can catch him touring the Pacific Northwest and California over the next month as well. All dates, tickets and information can be found at prettylightsmusic.com, along with all of his music available for free download.
Looking forward, new music or a new album or a new something seems closer than ever, although it’s form is still unidentified. Judging from how active Smith has been in the past year, though, we’re in for something truly special.
“I'm not really sure what the approach is going to be for the new album, but I was in the studio last year recording some ideas and everything sounds amazing so far,” Karns included. “Can't wait to hear what D does next, because from what I've heard lately, he is on top of his game like never before.”
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