photos: Kory Thibeault
Twenty-four shows into a comeback run nearly five years in the making, Pretty Lights has consistently leveled up the game on a nightly basis, smashing preconceived notions wherever they may roam. On the heels of instant-classic stops at The Salt Shed in Chicago and The Caverns in Tennessee—with a hella huge Hulaween dream sandwiched in between—the electrifying Soundship Spacesystem Tour barreled into the embryonic nest of psychedelic culture for a trifecta of concerts at San Francisco’s century-old theater The Warfield.
Now that the smoke has cleared, in the tailwind of three unicorn shows it’s safe to say the squad understood—and embraced—the assignment. Unspooling a weekend of jammy excursions steadily searching for the sound, Pretty Lights once again did not repeat a song across six sets. The quintet confidently employed type II techniques early and often, celebrating the City by the Bay with a series of Grateful Dead interpretations and local rock references, plus numerous other genre and generation-spanning touchstones native to the NorCal region.
While the pioneering producer/PL co-founder was once known in electronic circles primarily for his hyphy DJ sets, Derek Vincent Smith first performed live as a DJ/drummer duo as far back as 2008. Since 2013, he’s primarily presented his music in a live band format. From the halcyon days of Analog Future Band to the venturous Pretty Lights Live era that followed, DVS has long fleshed out his color-mapped creations with live instrumentation. With sample-based bangers and pristine production equal parts detailed and dense, this ambitious mission has proved both successful and elusive for Smith in the past.
The current situation, however, is a whole new ballgame. Welcome to the Space Jam.
This piece will not rehash the well-worn history of Derek Vincent Smith: meteoric rise from bedroom laptop producer to EDM/jamtronica titan, with Pretty Lights practically inventing a subgenre, then leading Colorado’s landscape-shattering electro-soul revolution. That story has long been told time and again, and Derek is—without question—father to many, many styles.
Most fans paying attention are also well aware that after a sustained period of rigorous recording, hard touring, and even harder living, the once-omnipresent 6-foot 8-inch mixologist disappeared from the music scene entirely, immediately after PL’s then-annual Red Rocks Amphitheatre engagement in August 2018.
Ever since, loyal throngs of hardcores have waited with bated breath for the re-emergence of their wayward wizard warrior-king. From the outside looking in, the decade-long deification of an invasive, microscopic nature was akin to what was once foisted upon the Grateful Dead’s late leader Jerry Garcia, and then Phish’s Trey Anastasio after that. Maybe such an intense looking-glass is what prompted both Smith’s former indulgences, as well as his eventual self-imposed exile.
They say addiction is the opposite of connection, and one can only speculate; however the parallel journeys of these cultural icons, paired with the jubilant responses from their respective fanbases, only further serve to tell the tale of this prodigal son’s grand return.
On April 4th, 2023, the press release went public, and plans for the Soundship Spacesystem Tour were finally moving. Scoot over Paul Wall, because this time it was Pretty Lights that “had the internet goin’ nuts.” An online teaser video revealed fresh sounds interspersed with familiar faces, a visual aesthetic at once old-school yet brand-new.
PL :: starship ANNOUNCE
Initially dangled as The Fantastic Pretty Lights, as well as PL Live in Dub, the news of the forthcoming jaunt spread like wildfire: hotels were booked, ticket-on-sale drama and resulting fiascos popped off across the interwebs, social media was brimming with hot takes and predictions. Countless hat-pins came off dusty cork boards and returned to their rightful place on flatbrim’d PL jibs.
Finally, Pretty Lights had come back to the hearts and minds of his minions; and the people’s champ was here to build a Swirl Bridge.
“We are on a healing journey together.” ©Derek Vincent Smith, 11/11/23
Enlisting a group of dear friends who double as some of the finest technicians on the scene for this latest and by far greatest iteration of the Pretty Lights project, Derek Frankenstein’d together a veritable Voltron that’s transformed into something more than meets the eye. The starting five are a new and improved vibe, transmitting onstage live without a net, captained by DVS at the analog/modular control deck. For nearly two months, they built themselves a home, shedding tunes ten hours a day, six days per week in NOLA, preparing 70-plus songs at the ready.
Blasting off at the Mission Ballroom in August back home in Denver, the whirlwind Soundsystem Spacesystem Tour immediately embraced the deepest annals of Pretty Lights’ canon, as well as introduced a gang of exciting new material. As the team touched down in Lake Dillon, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Chicago, and The Caverns for three-night engagements completely unique to themselves, the musicians were not merely performing the PL songs. They were breaking them down to the bone gristle, deconstructing the compositions, and reverse-engineering the elements before taking them on long, interesting walks through the streets (or forests) of whichever city/region Pretty Lights happened to be inhabiting that particular weekend.
One important element to the comeback has been the free livestreams on Twitch, benevolently provided for every stop of the tour (at great production expense, I might add). The artful, tech-savvy stream team supreme has stepped up in this arena as well, with digital art and point-cloud mapping manipulated in real-time with the music. The soundboard audio has been immaculate; and in the chat? That’s where the party really goes down.
It’s hard to overstate how effective these livestreams have been in reintroducing PL to the people, unveiling the onstage configuration, previewing new tunes, and reconnecting with the greater Pretty Lights community. The stream content has also served to temper/elevate expectations of those with tickets to future shows, so they know to expect a live band, long jams, dynamic deviations, and extrapolated/reinvented versions of the songs they love. This PL era is no doubt an acquired taste, prone to the occasional sensory overload, but one that offers limitless possibilities on a nightly basis.
Reimagining both the songs and the Pretty Lights project at large, Derek Vincent Smith has evolved his ensemble into something that resembles a jam band, in the clinical sense. Applying a two-set, improv-heavy modus operandi that is decidedly not native to electronic musicians arranging for a live band. Onstage computers and digital workstations are often predicated on programming and playback; PL has eschewed the old way of doing things in exchange for another dimension. The group is performing music entirely in the moment, live without a net.
Thus far, the results are revolutionary. Any time. Any place. Anywhere.
Your humble narrator was overwhelmed by the otherworldly Pretty Lights experience across two nights at Suwannee Hulaween, including a raved-up midnight Saturday soiree underneath a glorious full moon glowing in the dark of night. By the time the group descended on the Bay Area two weeks later, I was hip to the daring new styles and collective determination: techniques and communication far beyond what’s considered to be normal instrumentation.
Co-founder/co-producer and Derek’s childhood best friend Michal Menert—known colloquially as the Godfather of Electro-Soul—is back in the saddle on a full-time basis. Draped up in some of the flyest threads this side of DJ Pee Wee, Menert is busy diggin’ crates and mining samples, arranging songs on the fly, laying keys, freakin’ the Roland 404 like a boss, and even shredding hollowbody guitar when certain situations call for it. After years of returning here and there billed as a special guest, having Menert collaborating as a band member again speaks volumes.
In addition to stacks of keyboards, analog synths, Fender Rhodes, bulbous basslines, and real-time digital production, longtime co-conspirator Borahm Lee (Break Science) fills an essential role as quasi-musical director. Infinite harmonic knowledge and virtuosic vocabulary act as the glue between his synthesizer matrix and the other players’ live sampling, turntables, various instrumentation, Smith’s soundscapes and modulation, and more. Borahm is the only cat who’s been a part of each iteration of the Pretty Lights live band dating back to Analog Future circa 2013.
New Orleans drummer wunderkind Alvin Ford Jr. hopped on with Pretty Lights Live in 2016 and has remained a close friend to Derek ever since the producer decamped to the greatest musical city on Earth around that time. Alvin is a certified cyborg on the kit, having logged time with Crescent City institutions Dumpstaphunk and Trombone Shorty, among others. For this current combo, Ford is equipped with a tuned Roland 808 drum machine and is playing primarily electric drum pads, coupled with a traditional snare and cymbals, all in together now to uncork a massive mosaic thump that hits hard in the trunk.
Rounding out the crew is world-class DJ Chris Karns, another Colorado native and 2011 DMC champion; like Lee and Ford, Karns too returns from the PL Live contingent. Without question an essential element to the squadron, integrating state-of-the-art tech and exceptional turntablism (including visual scratching) with bottomless digital record crates. Without fail, this DJ has a surgical cut for every single situation, his ability to adapt on the fly, select an appropriate sample, cue it up, and drop it like it’s hot on merely an instant’s notice…it’s almost unfathomable, until you watch him do his thing in real-time.
Equally important to the audio elixir are the visual components, again provided by longtime all-world Lighting Director “The Lazer Shark” Greg Ellis, ably assisted by the 3D skills of anti-alias, Eric Mintzer, and other teammates. The sum of these parts has proven to be magical, unmatchable, spectacular, and unbreakable, lighting up the sky with an avant-garde display of intergalactic sorcery.
‘Twas nearly a full decade to the day since Pretty Lights’ then-nascent Analog Future Band—including Lettuce’s Adam Deitch, Eric “Benny” Bloom, and (on occasion Eric Krasno,) among others—performed at the cacophonous Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on November 30th, 2013. Livestreamed via Pay Per View, at the time this concert was a monumental undertaking on the heels of 2013’s Grammy-nominated LP A Color Map of the Sun, and the broadcast gave birth to numerous other high-profile AFB engagements. This legendary night also boasted direct support from Tipper, plus Tycho and ODESZA, then both just on the come-up. So it has certainly been a long, strange trip since Derek Vincent Smith had blessed up the downtrodden streets of downtown San Francisco.
Taking the hallowed Warfield stage, a.k.a. the house that Garcia built—a room the Fat Man rocked with the Dead and Jerry Garcia Band for many crescent moons—was a lofty challenge in itself, yet Pretty Lights more than rose to the occasion. Live and direct in the bosom of the raucous dancefloor or blissed-out balcony while it shook beneath our feet, it felt as if they completely tailored their sound art to the set/setting, and SF’s storied history of psychedelic music culture.
In more ways than one, PL offered a symbolic deep bow to the Grateful Dead and their sprawling cultural diaspora, not only by interpolating songs and lyrics but also throwing caution to the wind to soar by the seat of their dungarees. Segueing in and out of tunes, referencing relevant themes and influences with samples and riffs both pretty random and almost familiar, and oscillating into improv space like a jam band is often wont to do.
It’s been reported that Derek attended a Phish show just before Soundship Spacesystem touched down in Chi-Town, worth noting given the seismic shift in the concert experience DVS has been curating of late. On a recent podcast with Andy Frasco, Menert referred to the current PL presentation format as “Phishin’ out;” now with some 2023 shows under my belt, I’m pickin’ up what the Godfather was puttin’ down.
The PL scene, be it on the internet or in the lots, has long mirrored the culture that surrounds the aforementioned hippie jam band pioneers. The music? Considerably less so, that is until now. I couldn’t help but notice the way 2023 Pretty Lights shows have been structured and paced, tearing pages from the proverbial GD/Phish playbook: two sets and an encore, forwarding enough “hits” and/or recognizable joints to keep the gen pop enthused and engaged.
Yet for long stretches, the band takes a patient, focused, and measured approach to feed our heads, subtle storytelling stitched together by scintillating safaris ripe with ambitious type II jamming.
Pretty Lights – The Warfield – San Francisco, CA – 11/9/23 – Full Show
What does this Pretty Lights live band jamming exactly sound like? To quote famous Celtics guy Kevin Garnett, “Anything is possible”. After (often) lengthy, emotive intro segments that weave in layers, a melody, or sample, the group will unveil a song—be it a classic, deep cut, or something brand new. Moving as one organism, the quintet absconds from the limitations of song structure to unfurl a collective search for new land.
From trademark PL glitched-out electro-soul to elastic dubstep womp, subaqueous dub reggae, grimy hood-trap, freewheeling drum n’ bass, golden-era hip-hop, downtempo trip-hop, erotic tech-house, soulful deep-house, and myriad genre-blurring sound stations between, seemingly no topography is off limits. All of it is interspersed with thick gurgling basslines, sharp and witty rap samples, warm analog synths and warbling Fender Rhodes, bombastic drumbeats, plus whatever other spices du jour these clairvoyant chefs deem necessary to cook up the goods like the stove gods they are.
The methodology and musical mindset is—in a word—dowhatchalike, to quote Shock G, the dearly-departed East Bay philosopher. And if you didn’t know what he was talkin’ ‘bout, Derek went and had the whole band spell it out.
Before dropping an ecstatic, earthquake take on “Shakedown Street” to shut down Suwannee Hulaween, Smith made sure to dedicate it to “the greatest to ever do it.” Admittedly, yours truly arrives a bit skeptical when it comes to touching on the Grateful Dead, as I don’t often resonate with producers “remixing” the mighty GD. To my ears, “Shakedown” aside, the tunes don’t necessarily lend themselves to untz tempos or a nightclub bump. None of the Pretty Lights bandmates are card-carrying Deadheads, yet no doubt their gestures came from a genuinely righteous place. To be clear, not everything PL GD clicked in SF. But when they did, the results were powerful and worth unpacking the DNA.
On Friday’s bridge night, after teasing a sliver of “Touch of Grey” in “Last Passenger” (alongside Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time”, Digital Underground’s “Dowhatchalike”, and Black Star’s “Redefinition”), PL dipped into their 2010 remix of the Daft Punk TRON soundtrack cut “Solar Sailor”. Only on this night, the gales were howlin’ with a juicy Brent Mydland keyboard sample from Bobby Weir’s ’80s chestnut “Lost Sailor”. The sonic gumbo sketching something of a RZA-as-Bobby–Digital vibe, even taking it up a step, with a heavy headnod attached. Driftin’ and dreamin’, this brooding joint was further augmented by Karns lacing up obscure ’90s NorCal rap clique Delinquent Habits, drizzling the bars atop spooky soundscapes. Blowing smoke and bringing California swing, the curious combination made the aural hydraulics pop off properly, a “Lost Solar Sailor”, if you will.
Quite possibly emboldened by the brilliant execution of that peculiar pairing, later that same set, Pretty Lights attempted the seemingly unthinkable, a 13-minute, loving deep dive into the sacred psychedelic waters of “Dark Star”. Beginning with a serene sample mined from the 1969 studio version the GD released as a single, Borahm Lee mimicked the melody on Rhodes, creating atmospherics, and Menert began to noodle on guitar. Ford picked up a laconic, minimalist beat, and Karns scratched some kind of glitched-out chamber music. Shall we go?
The groove had a bit of The Ummah vibe, think late-era A Tribe Called Quest. Karns continued to flip scripts with nary a f*ck given, dropping Snoop Dogg’s “Do My Thang” chorus from the Doggfather’s Dâm-Funk collab on top of this “Dark Star” with a Native Tongues twist. Searchlight swirling, Derek boldly stepped up with an auto-tuned vocal that was a little off-kilter—if not off-putting to some gatekeeper types nearby. Yet the gaseous elements still burned down the ministry, ladies in velvet receded, the ghost of Garcia nodded and winked, and all was right in The Warfield.
On Saturday, the “Eyes of the World” chorus was set adrift to PL’s “Try to Remember”, the final track on 2006’s breakthrough album Taking Up Your Precious Time. Derek and Company unveiled a nine-minute ethereal vagabondage that married Garcia’s pristine vocal to the drippy, synth-drenched mid-tempo tune layered with serene strings; and it came off pretty damn solid. (I’m convinced they lifted the acapella from Wake of the Flood stems via the GD interactive software made available last year.)
Also Saturday, PL introduced elements of “White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane) during “Regular Priorities”, a cimmerian bass-driven joint that worked in samples from “Crazy Train” (Ozzy Osbourne) and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” (Roy Ayers), a preposterous combo much to the delight of these de-facto descendents of the Haight Ashbury generation. Same for recent The Beatles AI-enhanced creation “Now and Then”, refashioned and remixed by Pretty Lights as “Then and Now” with just the right amount of reflective emotion.
Pretty Lights – The Warfield – San Francisco, CA – 11/10/23 – Full Show
Naturally, there was so much more to love than select Jerry nods and SF hippie lore, unique to this run as they were. The GD are my all-time favorite band, but the Dead stuff was nowhere near the strongest material of the weekend. When Pretty Lights is doing Pretty Lights things, kitchen sink mode, that’s when the magic really happens.
Seriously impressive was the smattering of Pretty Lights’ unreleased original compositions unveiled throughout the weekend, and more so, across the tour at large. The Simon & Garfunkel-cribbed “Sounds of Silence” might just be the definition of the new sound, a modulating slow’d n’ throw’d dub cannon-blast boasting a pocket bigger than your stoner uncle’s stonewashed JNCOs. The Bone Thugs-n-Harmony buoyed “Wake Up”, possibly referencing Derek Vincent Smith’s purported Rip Van Winkle phase, seems perfectly uplifting to open the forthcoming album. Other potent new joints blazed in SF include “I Smoke ‘Em”, “Butterfly”, “Road to the Stars”, “Hot Like Rox”, “Regular Priority”, “Russian Justice”, and maybe this writer’s batch fave, the California electro-soul of “Time to Build a Home”.
Years ago, the “Pretty Lights vs Radiohead vs Nirvana vs NIN” mash-up set the bar sky high, and SF’s version vaporized the four-way heart of darkness. The new band has really dialed in an ability to incorporate hybrid strains of contemporary popular music into their own deliciously diabolical creations. Across the six sets, the fab five mined a wide swath, including but not limited to the Beastie Boys‘ “Something’s Got to Give”, plus elements of “Sure Shot” and “Intergalactic”. Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” danced with The Game’s “Pot of Gold” on “Expanding Perspectives”. The martial arts of Dead Prez‘s “Hip-Hop” held down Steve Miller Band‘s hallucinogenic “Fly Like An Eagle”; Southern kingpin combo OutKast & UGK’s “International Players Anthem” shared swag with SF funk pioneers Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star”.
PL detonated Dr. Dre’s “XXplosive” like a Compton contagion, paired with Oakland rap legends Souls of Mischief‘s’ iconic “93 til Infinity”, and sprinkled the more cutty Hieroglyphics “You Never Know” atop “Althea” (along with Donny Hathaway’s “The Ghetto”). They turned up the homies Lettuce with a mashup of Syl Johnson‘s “Love You Left Behind.” During “Up and Down I Go”, Earth, Wind, & Fire’s meditative “Energy” filled the air with prana, chased by a deep house inferno in Walker & Royce remix of Dom Dolla’s “San Frandisco”. Inside of “Hot Like Rox”, PL reverse-engineered Troyboi’s trap thunderclap “Do You?”, before reconstructing the cataclysmic U.K. bass nuke right before our very ears.
The range, attention to detail, and intentionality are nothing short of staggering.
I’m probably not qualified to assess what tracks are at the top of the PL food chain. “Drift Away” (2010), already a gossamer piece, was interwoven with Stevie Wonder’s impossibly-funky “Superstition” and the inescapable “Humpty Dance”, before getting reformulated into a liquid half-time, electro-heartbreaker powered by Alvin Ford Jr.’s libidinous 808s. The rarely-played dopamine blast “Dionysus” delivered a ten-ton avalanche of symphonic euphoria. “A Million Tomorrows” comes for the emotional jugular, and at the Warfield it spiraled into an all-gas-no-brakes jungle freakout that had the whole room dancing ourselves filthy, before exhaling with an Amen break.
From 2006’s debut album, “Finally Moving” unequivocally remains Pretty Lights’ most well-known number, the closest thing to a hit record the project has released. Though hardcores claim it to be played out, or a “custy song”, recent renditions have proved otherwise. PL utilized the Bay Area bars of Rappin 4 Tay, whose pimpadelic 1994 cut “Playaz Club” is built off the same guitar sample as “Finally Movin’ (Sonny Stitt’s 1969 track “Private Number”). In fact, at Bill Graham back in 2013, Derek shouted out Rappin’ 4 Tay, who was posted up side stage taking in the show. Ten years later, “Finally Moving” closed out night two’s first frame with a deafening crowd singalong that had the Warfield walls reverberating the love back at the band onstage.
And then there is “More Important Than Michael Jordan”. If “Sounds of Silence” is the new dawn, new day, then the revolutionized MJ is irrefutable evidence that these fellas are feelin’ good. Pouring up a double cup, they sizzled an ungodly trap intro stretching six-plus minutes. A certified classic slowly mutated into phantasmagorical fresh concoctions, swerving lanes from Blackstreet to Nas‘s “Hip Hop is Dead”, the four-on-the-floor fury of Phil Gonzo’s “FAFO”, and even made room for Neil Young’s “California Sunset”. A hellacious hoo-ride with no regard for sanctity nor safety. A magnum opus and malevolent creation.
Pretty Lights – The Warfield – San Francisco, CA – 11/11/23 – Full Show
The final night’s expansive encore began with a multi-faceted journey through a phenomenal new tune, “The Sun Spreads In Our Minds”, which traversed a gamut of genres and geographies. Derek stealthily retreated from his perch shrouded in synths atop the stage, and hopped out to suddenly appear inside the front of house workstation. From this vantage point, DVS took in the circus-like scene with the people, vibrating high with clear eyes and a heart of gold, before shouting out every last person on the production and management crew. All the while emanating a happiness inside and childlike glee unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed from Smith. It was compelling, emotional, and downright triumphant to behold.
Before anybody could catch too many feelings in the moment, Derek told Alvin to come with the trap-ish he had in the tuck from soundcheck; the team swiftly whipped up some Wu-Tang frog venom, served white hot on the spot like it was nothin’. The room was positively jubilant and swirling in a frenzy before Pretty Lights cued up the foreboding pianos that announced 2010’s “Still Night”, followed by “Look Both Ways” from that same year, which roller-coaster’d into modular deep house debauchery. Roger Troutman told y’all California knows how to party; Derek Vincent Smith says just follow the road to the stars.
After five shows and nearly 4,000 words in, perhaps even I’ve become a pretty light again. Welcome to the next level.
The Soundship Spacesystem Tour concludes December 3rd–5th at Mardi Gras World in New Orleans.
Stream/download the shows on PrettyLightsLive.com
Thanks to Phil Salvaggio of Mammoth Music Group, Whitney Wangsgard, & Tom Gelini.