Circa Survive at the Riviera

By Isabelle Johnson

November 3, 2018

“Let the rhythm take control! Let the music move you!” Anthony Green, lead singer of rock band Circa Survive, shouts into the writhing crowd. His hair drips sweat onto blushing fangirls as he holds the microphone out to let fans sing along. There is no doubt about it: Green is a crowd favorite. From the moment he takes the stage, the energy in Chicago’s Riviera Theatre reaches even to the white-haired and wrinkled woman singing along from the balcony.

But this blustery November evening begins with a slower and more melodic tune than the headliner’s old school emo jams. Queen of Jeans, an almost entirely female outfit excepting the drummer, starts the night out with a six-song set filled with slow, doleful riffs and the ethereal vocals of lead singer Miriam Devora. Her rich voice is reminiscent of “dream pop” singers such as Lana Del Rey and Florence and the Machine, and as her frizzy, waist length brown hair sways to the vintage-style rhythms of the guitars, it’s hard not to be mesmerized. For their finale, they end with their own eerie but soulful take on R&B singer Aaliyah’s song “Are You That Somebody?” as the low, blue lighting and melodious riffs take the audience through an enchanted forest of harmonies.

“Hey, the guys said to tell you to be careful for the next set since there is supposed to be a lot of activity at the front.” The scruffy security guard leans in to warn me and a fellow photographer about how “heavy” the next set will be. As a frequenter of death metal shows, I find this hard to believe.

“As compared to what?” I ask.

“The last set.” Well, compared to the hippie dream girls of Queen of Jeans, just about anything would be heavier.

Little did I know, fans of the post-hardcore and sometimes spoken word band La Dispute rival even the most devoted of death metal audiences. From the first song to the last, crowd surfers test security’s limits, and I cradle my camera close as lead singer Jordan Dreyer practically flies over my head into the crowd. I have only ever seen a lead singer with that much energy since I attended a While She Sleeps concert, and Dreyer hardly ever stands still. Typical of post-hardcore bands, his vocals are fairly indistinguishable, but La Dispute’s sound can best be described as a very strange bastard child of Twenty-One Pilots (alt-pop) and Counterparts (hardcore punk). However, Dreyer’s energy is a sharp contrast to the rest of the band who stands in the shadows as they play the notes they have to. The bassist even has his back turned to the crowd for most of the show, and the set fizzles out with an incredibly short and unmemorable last song and a rather exhausted looking Dreyer.

Both openers fly by with relatively short sets, and despite some amazing music and incredible energy neither can compare to the sheer presence that Circa Survive brings to the stage. A great concert should leave fans in the pit with sore vocal cords and covered in sweat, and Circa Survive undoubtedly delivers.

Anyone who listens to old school emo bands like The Used and Taking Back Sunday knows that Circa Survive’s first album Blue Sky Noise brings back all of the middle school feels. Even though the band prioritized their newest albums, once the opening riffs of “Strange Terrain” start to play the audience can hardly be contained. This song is my third and last one in the press pit, and I spend most of it protecting my head and face from crowd surfers’ feet and Anthony Green’s deadly microphone, (which he lassoes out into the crowd at least twice). Even as I get uncomfortably too close to Green’s torso as he sprints over to where I’m shooting and leans out into the crowd, I can’t help but sing along with an enormous smile.

For the slower songs, minimalist and vintage-looking lightbulbs illuminate the band, and for the more upbeat rock ballads, trippy lights spiral away on a backdrop. Throughout it all, Green’s unusually high-pitched voice reverberates across the theatre, and for once you can actually distinctly hear the bass player. Most importantly, there is love. The spray painted word adorns one of the amps, Green spends more time in the crowd holding the hands of fans than actually on stage, and the voices of hundreds of black-clothed outcasts sing in unison: “Only light can get through…”

Ty Segall at Thalia Hall

By Nat Scholl

Photos by Leon Sommer-Simpson

November 2, 2018

Approximately seven months ago, San Francisco-based garage and psychedelic rocker Ty Segall played a show at the Vic Theater that easily remains a contender for the most chaotic, electrifying show I’ve ever seen. When it was announced that he was playing a Thalia Hall show, I knew I had to relive the experience. In all of my eager anticipation, I glossed over a few key details. First, it was a solo, acoustic show. It was also an “in the round” show, meaning the artist plays on a slightly elevated platform surrounded on all sides by audience. I had no idea when I signed up that Ty Segall–the frantic, cacophonous shredder–would pack up his electric guitar, send home his band, and set up in the middle of the audience while equipped with only a highly decorated acoustic guitar, a mic, and a glass of red wine weighing down his setlist. Has he gone soft?

In truth, no, because he has had a soft, tender side for a while. Segall has an extensive body of mostly acoustic ballads sprinkled into his latest works, alongside his 2013 album, the psychedelic folk, predominantly acoustic Sleeper. These songs, with a couple exceptions, rarely make it into his live shows, which is unfortunate considering they’re some of his most affecting, beautiful songs and a perfect balance to his more raucous numbers. With the chance to hear some of Segall’s less played cuts, I approached this Friday night show with renewed enthusiasm.

But first, William Tyler. Hailing from Nashville, the show’s opener outdid Segall in minimalism—while he occasionally spoke through the mic, all of his songs were instrumentals played on just his acoustic guitar. His songs, each using a different unconventional tuning, were dynamic; continuously meandering and changing form, swelling and diminishing throughout their often six- to eight-minute running times. A fingerpicker in the vein of American primitive guitarists like John Fahey, all ten fingers were at work at most times, composing odd, intriguing chord shapes or dexterously alternating between strings. While many opening acts have a difficult time maintaining their audience’s attention, even with a full band, William Tyler, his head constantly engaged in an impassioned bob, was the center of attention. Conversation occasionally picked up between songs but the crowd, for the most part, remained hushed, apart from a pair of backward-baseball cap-donning Segall bros who never missed an opportunity to bellow their approval at Tyler’s most intimate and emotive moments—“Fuck it up Willy!” I knew there was something missing when I listened to Modern Country, Tyler’s latest album, but these guys showed me what it was.

And then Ty came on, matter-of-factly plopping down his wine glass paperweight and launching into “Crazy,” a song from the aforementioned Sleeper. His set list included a number of rarely played, originally acoustic songs, but also stripped down versions of some of his usually fuzzed out rockers and a series of covers taken from his new covers album Hot Fudge. There are a couple notable differences between electric and acoustic Ty, the most pronounced being the emphasis on his voice in the acoustic setting. At the Vic, his voice at most times was just one contributing factor to the all-consuming wall of noise; here, without all of the instrumental distraction, his dynamic range was on full display. Songs like “Warm Hands (Freedom Returned),” a 10+ minute, proggy epic off of his most recent self-titled album featured a throaty, unhinged growl; his natural, reedy Lennon-esque voice; and a demented yelp peppered in here and there. He also engaged more with the audience, taking full advantage of the “in the round” format and moving his mic to face different parts of the crowd. At one point he dove into an impromptu Q&A with one of the bros about his dog, the subject of his track “Fanny Dog.” Apparently, Fanny is a dachshund.

There is one similarity between the two settings, whether it’s an amplified full band show or a stripped-down acoustic set: a Ty Segall show is neither tame nor predictable. Songs still devolved into spazzy technical freakouts, Ty Segall still battered the strings of his guitar with such ferocity that it’s a surprise they survived the show intact, and bodies still moved, albeit with less intense contact than in his full band shows. Though it was a shame that as a solo performer he wasn’t able to recreate some of the intricate and beautiful full band arrangements of his acoustic songs, he did as much as one can conceivably do with the limiting format, resulting in an entertaining show that rarely felt like a diluted version of his act.




LANY at the Riviera

By Niki Amir

Photos by Rachel Kupfer

November 1, 2018

“Incredibly millennial” probably sums up the experience of going to a LANY concert. Unlike most things you read, I mean that in a completely flattering way. Paul Klein and LANY put on a show that really just reveled in that sweet spot of simple frank lyrics and dreamy synth-pop beats.

Despite the Riv being packed to the very back of the balcony, the uproar that occurred as Klein took to the stage and started singing “Thick and Thin” off of the band’s new album Malibu Nights came as a surprise to me. While I didn’t go into the concert expecting their slow reflective tunes to transform into the much more infectious upbeat pop songs, LANY definitely changed my mind. From the Coors sipping dad to my left and the unashamedly loud preteens behind me, everyone seemed to abandon their inhibitions as they sang along to older songs like “yeah, babe, no way” or new singles like “I Don’t Wanna Love You Anymore,” both of which hit that perfect pop-song-kind-of-heartbreak.

But what really made the night stand out was the stage set up. Split into two levels, the band played on the top elevated half as Klein pranced and swooned around on the lower level. He occasionally climbed up on to a clear stand to play the keyboard for a little theatricality – and it worked. Both halves were backlit by huge LCD screens. As the backdrop changed with each song and set the mood, I also felt like I was living through an extension of this unique technological age of relationships that we’ve all become used to – or rather struggle with. Coupled with synth beats and electronic melodies, Klein’s lyrics place you right in the middle of a relatable modern saga.

I’d recommend checking out LANY just because they’re the kind of band where slower, more repetitive songs that seem to lack a certain oomph become so much better after hearing them live. “Hericane” stood out as a favorite and the communal swaying that happened while everyone belted out “our home’s a wreck, look at this mess” was well worth the trip downtown.

What’s evident is that Paul Klein is equally as charismatic as he is heartbroken. An hour before coming on stage he tweeted “I want us” and while I am wondering who hurt him so profoundly, if it’s going to find its way into these honest indie pop songs, I’m here for it. The night ended with a rousing version of “ILYSB” and I couldn’t recommend going to see Paul Klein sing candidly about love and loss more.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones at the Riviera

By Stella Frentress

October 10, 2018

In another lifetime, Paul Janeway was probably a nerd. His warm, round face is hidden behind thick glasses and topped with a fluff of orange hair. But he was born in the Deep South, growing up with a rich musical tradition and a slow changing culture that seeps into bloodlines and passes from one generation to the next. Janeway was born with the blues. With a voice that could easily belong to Otis Redding instead, Janeway channels the pure, unrefined passion that elevates music from a sensual to a spiritual level—a truly soulful sound that would not feel out of place at church on a Sunday morning.

The now eight-piece group officially formed in 2012 in Birmingham, Alabama, and consists of guitarist Browan Lollar, bassist Jesse Phillips, Andrew Lee on drums, Al Gamble on piano and organ, Allen Branstetter on trumpet, Amari Ansari on saxophone, and Chad Fisher on trombone. Since their formation, the band has released an album every other year. This year we were blessed with their third release, Young Sick Camellia, which, as its title alludes to, examines Janeway’s complicated relationship with culture and family in the south (hint: the camellia is the state flower of Alabama). A self-proclaimed “blue dot in a sea of red,” according to the band’s website, Janeway has done an excellent job of bringing the South out of the South. By adding dance-worthy elements of funk and R&B into their soul base and questioning tradition with their lyrics, St. Paul and the Broken Bones proves to be more than just a relic and pushes thoughtful and original content out of the confines of the South and into the rest of the world.

If you’re more entranced by Janeway’s booming voice than by the words he’s singing, you need only to see him onstage to realize he’s no fan of tradition. I’m not sure exactly what to call the drapery that adorned his body—a fur coat made of tinsel?—but it was certainly not something you’d find in your papa’s closet. From my low angle as a photographer, I was able to get up close with the finishing touch on his shimmering outfit: a pair of glittery, red, white, and blue Nikes. I regretted that the shoes would go unnoticed by everyone who wasn’t in the front row but it’s not like the rest of the audience had a bad view either. Flanked by an enthusiastic Lollar on guitar and Phillips on bass, Janeway commanded the stage and even broke the dividing plane into the crowd’s space. Hand outstretched like a preacher, he teetered at the edge of the stage and bellowed, “Your love is like a mighty river, baby…” Saint Paul Janeway, the preacher from Alabama, out to spread a new gospel with his broken bones.

When I think of their sound, I think of the word “full.” Full of rhythm, full of different instruments, full of moving parts, full of emotion, full of life and all its complexities. I saw no less than four instrument switches throughout the show between a group of seven active musicians. And yet, even with the combination of seven instruments and Janeway’s booming voice, no one sound was overpowering. Each had its own rhythm, its own part of a harmony, and they complimented each other. St. Paul and the Broken Bones are masters at subtly manipulating the individual voices at play in their music so that their songs don’t blend together under a blanket. Whether the keys and the bass were laying down funk in songs like “GotItBad,” or the guitar hummed a slow melody like “Sanctify,” or the horns took charge in their breakthrough song “Call Me,” the complete sound was undeniably Southern but without methodically copying the classics or pushing one person to carry the weight of the rest of the band.

The multilayered sound of the band was in turn complemented by the Riviera Theatre itself, which plays with dimension through its tiered floor and multiple balconies that accentuate the depth of the space and draw all eyes to a focal point far behind the plane of the stage. The band chose a starry backdrop, giving the illusion of an infinitely receding space behind the band, whereas the lighting penetrated back into the audience. The band itself, at the midpoint between Earth and endless sky, became the sun—the soul—of the shared space. And boy did they have fun with it. They controlled the Riviera with light and energy that affected everyone from the Miller-drinking twenty-somethings clustered by the central bar on the floor to the fifty-something-year-old couples in the balcony. Everyone was engaged and dancing nearly the whole time. The show was way more fun than I expected to have on a Wednesday night and I’m not complaining. A conflicted Southerner myself, I loved the way that St. Paul and the Broken Bones were able to both preserve and transform traditions and create something new out of a collection of old pieces. In two years, when they (hopefully) will repeat their two-year album release pattern, I look forward to seeing what they do next.

Masego at Metro

Photos by AJ Shaheen

Writeup by Ben Moskow

Oct 25, 2018

Jamaican-born singer Masego is an innovator. He coined the term “TrapHouseJazz” to describe his sound and he flexed his versatility on his viral collaboration with French producer FKJ on “Tadow”. Recorded in futuristic Red Bull Studios in Paris, the eight-minute experimental piece features the two on just about every instrument you could imagine. I was intrigued to see how Masego’s upbeat energy in the studio would translate to a live performance.

As I entered the main floor of the Metro, I was greeted with billows of fog-machine smoke. The intimate venue featured an overwhelmingly millennial crowd, but its racially diverse makeup indicates that Masego’s sound appeals to more than just one demographic.

R&B duo VanJess kicked things off. I had not previously heard of them, but the soulful siblings certainly made their mark on the Metro. What VanJess lacked in name recognition, they made up for with powerful stage presences and upper-echelon vocal performances. It was clear that the duo felt comfortable with each other; they seemed in sync with their movements throughout, whether it was a staccato shake of the hips or a synchronized toe-tap.

Several songs fit into the “low-key banger” category, reminiscent of Syd’s “Body”. However, they offered some deviation with the vulnerable “Honeywheat” and the up-tempo, KAYTRANADA-produced “Another Lover,” which got the crowd dancing after a powerful bass drop.

VanJess heated things up, but Masego had the audience going wild from the moment he hit his first saxophone note. Rocking a bright red Hawaiian shirt, acid wash jeans and sunglasses, he lived up to his early declaration: “Y’all give me the energy, I’ll give it right back!” Whether it was moonwalking during “Lady Lady,” conducting drum rolls with shouts like “Give it to me four times!” or a personal favorite, engaging in a saxophone battle with his keyboardist on “You Gon’ Learn Some Jazz Today”, he never let the energy sag.

Throughout the set, I saw the full spectrum of cramped concert dancing. Masego’s performance featured as many jumping-with-hands-in-the-air songs as it did casually-swaying-side-to-side songs. He lulled the crowd into a relaxed happiness on “Black Love”, then had them cheering their loudest when he punctuated each high note in “Shawty Fishin’” with a deep knee bend. To maintain the energy, he relied heavily on simple call and response, specifically with an “ee-ee-eee” on the bouncy “Prone”. The crowd engagement didn’t end there, though. I saw just how devoted Masego’s fans were when they screamed out the chorus of “Old Age”, which details a man’s affinity for older women: “I need me a sugar momma, old lady, foxy mama, sophisticated,” without the slightest hesitation. By the end of his set, he had the crowd begging for an encore and he obliged, playing three more songs before closing with a particularly electric performance of “Navajo.”

For fans of up-and-coming artists, I would advise keeping an eye on Masego and VanJess in the future because I have confidence that their talent will continue to develop over their next few projects. They may never sell out arena shows, but both did a damn good job of filling the Metro with good vibes tonight.




VanJess’s debut studio album Silk Canvas available on streaming services now!

Masego’s second studio album Lady Lady available on streaming services now!

Windy Popfest at Burlington Bar

Photos by Thomas Kikuchi

Writeup by Layton Guyton

Oct. 20, 2018

On a cold and relatively quiet Saturday night in Logan Sqaure, Chicago’s first Windy Popfest opened at the Burlington Bar. The bar provided a small and intimate setting you wouldn’t often associate with the words “music festival” but it was the perfect backdrop for the performances of the evening. In between sets, various DJs filled the space with melancholy yet upbeat tunes, which seemed to be a theme.

Chicago is home to a massive independent music community, encompassing pretty much any niche genre you could think of. Windy Popfest itself was a collection of independent artists across the US centered around dreampop, a genre that has gotten really popular in recent years. Dreampop is loosely derivative of shoegaze, but rather than muddy, distorted guitar tones creating a monotonous dirge, it opts for simple melodic lines in reverb soaked sound, or floating synth arpeggios weaving in and out of the mix. The sound has been popularized by bands like Beach House, Alvvays, Wild Nothing, and M83.

Girl Valley opened the night with some simple yet heartfelt and catchy singer-songerwriter ballads. Her new EP Eternal Picnic reflects her very stripped down sound, but has some subtly catchy choruses and clever lyricisms. Following her brief set, Avishay, a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn brought a little more energy to the space with his earnest power-pop. The next set also featured solo artist Kevin Hairs but had a little more punch thanks to some interesting, improvised beat loops off an iPad. His new release Freak in the Streets, available on Bandcamp or via cassette, features a full band, has some memorable songwriting.

A local band, Star Tropics, played the first full set of the night and their jangle-pop sound was infectiously happy. Having a full band in the space immediately changed the energy, and the crowd seemed to grow quickly. Their bouncy guitar riffs and sunny sound were simple and fun, a reminder that music does not have to be complex or overly intricate to be good.Everyone seemed to take notice of the stage setup in preparation for the following artist, Gloom Balloon. A blowup bottle of Miller Lite and an RV shaped tent sat in the corner as found footage from commercials played on a loop through the projector. After a couple minutes of this, the artist finally arrived, hopped on stage, and pressed play on his laptop. We were immediately transported into the absurdist world of Gloom Balloon, backed by choir of found sound samples and his own recordings. He spent most of the set sprinting around the audience and half-singing, half-imploring them to appreciate his stream-of-consciousness ramblings. It toed a line between unbearable gimmick and captivating performance art, and it was unsure which he truly intended but it was FUN.Panda Riot, another Chicago band rounded out the night with some cuts off their new, fantastic album Infinity Maps. Their performance almost felt choreographed but captured the exact same sound as their studio recordings, something I thought would be impossible. Definitely check them out if you are into dreampop, and keep an eye out for Windy Popfest in the future!

Titus Andronicus at Bottom Lounge

Photos by Leon Sommer-Simpson

Writeup by Francesca Rosen

Oct. 19, 2018

Walking into the small show space behind a restaurant, with the stage empty, most people huddled in small groups talking about their weeks and beginning their first drinks of the night.  The show was not to start for another 45 minutes but several dedicated fans were already clinging to the gate at the front of the stage, waiting for the action to start.

As the first performer, Ted Leo, ascended the stage alone, there were several whoops as he began singing and taking requests from the audience.  His songs were largely ballads and many were about the current political climate of America. While the self-proclaimed “celtic punk rock” singer’s songs sounded similar to one another and the singer himself admitted to having lost his voice, his music perfectly set the tone of the concert which was laid back and involved much audience participation.  

For Leo’s last song, Titus Andronicus joined him in a blaze of glory, bringing an energy to the stage and in the audience that had not previously been accomplished by the solo singer.  The drummer added a complex rhythm to the songs that had been lacking with only one lead guitar player, while the bass player and two other guitars added a new layer to the melodies. After the mood had been set for their half of the show, all but the frontman of Titus Andronicus, Patrick Stickles, left the stage. Stickles proceeded to explain to the crowd, while strumming chords on his guitar, that while the band would “rocking pretty goddamn hard” in only a few minutes, the audience members must maintain some respect for those around them.  While this disclaimer may have gone on for a little too long, it did allow the audience to become more and more eager for the music to start. Stickles talk immediately transitioned to singing the hauntingly beautiful ballad “To Old Friends and New.” While his voice could not be described as technically perfect, its gruff and raspy quality perfectly complemented the melody and solo guitar.

While his next song “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ” began in much the same way as the band’s first song, the energy was immediately brought back up as the rest of the band dramatically ran back on the stage, instantly getting into place in time to scream “Fuck You!” in unison.  The audience immediately responded to the energy and due to the varying genres that the band spanned dance moves of the audience ranged from swaying back and forth to thrashing around violently, creating a small mosh pit in the middle of the crowd.

Stickles himself was an amazing performer, running around the stage to play side by side with each of his bandmates and even nearly climbing into the crowd at times.  Every time Stickles spoke, he was passionate and humble and had clearly constructed what he was going to say just so to make every small speech segue directly into his next song.  

While I would have preferred more songs from the band’s album that was released this year, A Productive Cough, to have made the setlist, it was clear that the audience appreciated the many older songs that the band performed as they sang along with every lyric.  It was clear from the show that Titus Andronicus loved, more than anything else, performing for us as Stickles repeated numerous times, “This is pretty good,” and often exalted in his being in Chicago.  The most obvious indicator of the band’s happiness was their resistance in getting off the stage despite the pleas from the security guards, though much to the pleasure of the audience begging for more.

As the concert came to an end, to the excitement of the employees of the Bottom Lounge, the band informed the audience that they would be selling the merchandise themselves after the concert, leading to a flood of audience members toward the back of the room.  Everyone was anxious to meet the band that had just made their Friday night.

The Growlers at The Riviera

Writeup by Nicole Andonova

Photos by Patricia Janick

October 4, 2018

The Growlers made a stop in Chicago as part of their Beach Goth 2018 tour and filled The Riviera with fans of all ages.  High school hipsters mixed with Midwestern grandfathers, all came hyped to see the California-grown rock band.

As the show started, absolutely nobody was prepared for what was to come. The opener was Kirin J Callinan, an Australian singer/songwriter who threw the crowd for a loop. His music dabbled in several genres including electro-pop, screamo, and experimental rock.  He appeared on stage in a chain-link Darth Vader mask, jersey, track pants, and electric guitar. Then he proceeded to speak in a creepy Darth Vader voice, threw his electric guitar in the air multiple times, and excessively jerked his right arm as some kind of signature dance move. Although quite off-pitch, he held notes for an uncomfortably long period of time and made comments like, “come find me after this and give me a kiss.” Everybody was at a loss of words and became progressively more confused as his performance went on. After a few minutes of processing, the guy behind me managed to summarize the show by saying, “I just watched a guy trip acid on stage for 25 minutes straight.”

Callinan’s performance is hands down the strangest thing I have ever experienced. The most bizarre part of the night had to be when this grown man took his shirt off, stopped the music, and managed to scream for four minutes straight.  I shouldn’t have underestimated his ability to baffle the audience when he proceeded to chant, “I AM NOT A BABY, I AM NOT A BOY, I AM THE TODDLER” in a thick Australian accent. The same guy from before accurately described the feelings we were left with, “I feel uncomfortable, I feel like I need to take a shower after that.”  I’m afraid that the opener ended up overshadowing The Growlers’ entire set.

Although Callinan is definitely who I walked out thinking about afterwards, The Growlers really impressed me.  They came out in matching black and white jumpsuits and converse. Throughout each song the robotic-looking band members showed no expression in their faces and left it to the lead singer, Brooks Nielsen, to take the spotlight. Nielsen had an extra raspy voice that night which added a bit more overall grunginess to the live performance. Acid Rain, a song from their first album, was a crowd favorite. Nielsen had a lot of personality, super sassy but just as endearing, like a sour patch kid in the flesh.

Once we made our way up to the balcony overlooking the crowd, I got a chance to notice the lack of phones in people’s hands. It was refreshing to see everyone so absorbed in the songs they loved and not feeling the need to publicize it all over social media.  I can’t remember the last time I’d seen a crowd so present.

Overall I’d say Beach Goth was an accurate description of the atmosphere.  Their California background definitely came through, while the singer’s raspy voice and band’s melancholy vibe fulfilled the goth aspect.  Like I said though, this was the first time I walked out of a concert raving about the opener. The show was a trip from start to finish.

Writeup by Isabelle Johnson

The lights dim, the intricate stars of Aragon Ballroom’s ceiling illuminate, and the eerie intro to “Blood” by DJ Caroline Cecil, better known by the name of “Whipped Cream,” begins. Her white hair is barely visible above the raised platform on the stage, but her music speaks for her.

Having only attended one other electronic music concert, I was skeptical. How good can one person turning knobs and pressing buttons really be?  Where was the talent in that? Where were the instruments? I found my answer as I watched hallucinogenic images play on the large screen on stage and listened to the galloping beat of her song “Selfish.” A Buddha statue appears followed by a pulsing, blue iris and later a dark forest. Whipped Cream jumps across the stage, pumping her fist and shouting “Can you feel me!?” I can feel her alright. An unknown, female vocalist underscores the pulsing beat of “Selfish” in an unrelenting trap beat that shakes the dance floor. At the same time, the ethereal sounds of “Mirrors” lull the room into a trance-like state with a blend of bass, synth, and unusual sound effects that sound like the song title itself: reflective glass.

Unlike some of the later DJs on the lineup, Whipped Cream’s music mixes the heavy, thumping beats of typical trap music with a more unconventional and natural sound that creates a powerful and emotional duality while also energizing the crowd. Would Mozart be rolling in his grave? Most likely, but Whipped Cream, the first of four openers for Zed’s Dead, still brought the house down last Friday night.

On the other hand, the second opener, the DJ duo Barely Alive, validated all of my worst fears about the electronic genre.

“Is that…Marshmello?” I wondered as I watched an enormous white marshmallow-shaped head appear on the screen. One half of the DJ duo walked on stage wearing some sort of rectangle shaped mask that closely resembled another electronic music artist named Marshmello who wears a white marshmallow head. Lacking the energy and creativity of Whipped Cream, Barely Alive’s use of lights and the background screen fails to impress. The screen alternates between the group’s signature rectangle head and a cityscape backdrop, and the lights simply flash intermittently. The music subscribes to the dubstep stereotype: high-pitched screeching that grates the ears and focuses on a heavy bass and as much distortion as humanly possible. While the crowd continues to grow as the night’s headliner approaches, after half an hour of indistinguishable songs and a DJ that steals Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” by simply adding a bass drop, I noticed I wasn’t the only one that was checking my phone.

By the time the third opener, Sub Focus, took the stage, the real fun began. Midway through the first opener my camera died, and I had removed myself to lean against a pillar on the right side of the enormous, castle-like ballroom. I was almost certainly the only sober person there. Throughout the night, security removed three people to stand facing the wall for a pat down. One person walked outside in handcuffs, and I even watched EMTs wheel a stretcher down the side of the venue never to return.

“Yeah, that’s the EDM crowd. What did you expect?” My boyfriend texts me.

And Sub Focus, for the most part, is your typical EDM. Most of his songs are fast-paced, featuring synths and a distorted male voice. This all leads up to about three indistinguishable bass drops per song. Some unnamed hype man even appears on stage to sporadically shout “Jump!” into the microphone and wave his arms around. It’s club music at its finest.

After enduring a couple of formulaic DJs, some spilled beer by thousands of stumbling drunk fans, and some practically pornographic PDA, I finally got to witness the somewhat disappointing Zed’s Dead.

“Collapse” by Zed’s Dead from their 2014 album Somewhere Else has been one of my favorite electronic songs for years, and when the Canadian duo of Dylan Mamid and Zachary Rapp-Rovan raised their hands to the lily pad-soft intro of this song, I couldn’t help but smile and dance along.

“You’re so used to walking away, and I’m left here on my own.” I raised my voice along with the thousands of fans there at the venue, which felt like it had hit its capacity of 5,000 that night. The bass drop was coming, and everyone knew it.

“You’re gone. You’re gone. Gone. Gone. On. On. On.” The crowd tensed, and the familiar anticipation built as the couple next to me held each other close. I held my hand up. Here it comes.

And it did, but it wasn’t my song. It was just another mix. Just like most of the DJs before them, Zed’s Dead had decided to use clips from other artists to mix into their own music. The duo waved their arms around and dialed their knobs as blue lasers projected geometric shapes onto the back walls of the ballroom. I wasn’t disappointed at first. I knew that was how the story went. Entertainment came first.

Confetti burst out into the crowd as machines dispersed puffs of smoke. The couple next to me jumped on each other to make out as the crowd behind me thrusted their hips and waved their arms around. Blue, red, white, and yellow lights synchronized with the music as some scene from an anime that looked like Dragon Ball Z played on the stage screen. Anime, lights, geometric shapes, lasers, smoke, confetti, makeouts, glitter-covered torsos, balloons in the air: the sober me realized that the electronic music concert is not about the music, but rather the experience.

That night, Zed’s Dead chose to play far more of their heavy, bass thumping trap songs over their more tranquil, softer music. The chillstep of the album Northern Lights took a backseat to more dubstep singles like “Samurai” and  “Magnets.” Under the smoky lights and the arching, galaxy ceiling that spanned half a football field, I remembered Whipped Cream’s tendency to stick to her songs in their entirety rather than rely on clips of pop songs for mixing. I remembered her originality and her unique sound that stood out from everyone else that night. She might have been the first opener, but she was the only DJ for whom I thought, “I’m definitely going to listen to her music when I get home.”

Courtney Barnett at The Riviera Theatre

By Maddy Ashmun

Photos by Leah Dunlevy

At the Riviera last Thursday, Courtney Barnett set up two poles between which every song in her set fell.

At the start of the show, she brings out some of her coldest and darkest material:“Hopefulessness” a track that carries a numbness and anger that glow like red-hot coals.

On the other end, in the encore, Barnett’s at her softest, with a soaring solo cover of Gillian Welch’s “Everything Is Free,” warmly lit by strings of twinkly lights.

Barnett, a master of the “straightforward” approach in both her lyrics and her arrangements, constructs her live show in a way that follows suit. On songs like “Small Talk” and “Are You Looking After Yourself?” she reveals herself to be an extremely able live soloist—something we’re not treated to on her studio albums—but generally speaking, she stays pretty close to the arrangements you’ll find on her records.

For the most part, Barnett’s clear-cut approach is most appealing, but a few times it’s to her detriment. When played live, “Depreston,” “Walkin’ On Eggshells,” and “Need A Little Time,” push ahead in a way where Barnett doesn’t give herself or her band enough time or room to dig in to the few ballads she has.

In a set that’s packed with impossibly witty, guitar-driven, up-tempo tracks, Barnett misses an opportunity to expand the already broad spectrum of tempos and emotions she’s set up for herself.

Closing out her several month long tour in support of her second studio album Tell Me How You Really Feel, Courtney Barnett has crafted an effective live show that is true—perhaps too true—to the straight-shooting spirit she’s become known for.