What are the kids listening to? Apparently dub step — lots and lots of dub step. Or, on a broader level, “EDM”, a term hijacked by festival sponsors and marketing execs who barely explain what the three letters stand for. But I digress. The point is: electronic music is big and getting bigger—a truth made apparent at Friday’s show at Rochester’s Main Street Armory, featuring Kill Paris and Son of Kick before headliner Bassnectar. This all ages show began around 7:30PM and was over by 11, at which point partygoers spilled out onto the streets and back to reality. I looked forward to reviewing this show for a number of reasons but was left feeling underwhelmed—at no fault of the music. As a matter of fact the music was on-point throughout the show, but the night itself was a weird one. Here is my experience.
Having seen Bassnectar about seven years ago at BB King’s Underground in NYC (a small club in Times Square), I was excited to see him on a much larger scale. In addition to growing his fan base through numerous festivals and shows, the passage of time also included the release of four successful albums—two of which made Billboard charts. All of this is evidence that Bassnectar is doing something right, and being a veteran of the genre, deserves all the respect and success he has garnered. In fact, this is one of the main reasons I love Lorin Ashton, AKA Bassnectar: he is a self-proclaimed bass head, a huge music nerd and an extremely articulate individual. The blending of influences that make up Bassnectar are so far-reaching – from hip hop to break beat and two-step – that there is no question of Ashton’s musical awareness or ability. His latest album, Noise VS Beauty (for which his current tour is supporting), is a perfect example of this, with perhaps some of Ashton’s most complex orchestrations yet. There is no shortage of thick, wet bass – laid on heavy and in your face – but this is subtly balanced with moments of almost serene beauty. This equilibrium is masterful; an abrasive rock-and-roll “fuck you” as it moves into tranquil ambiance. This is not the case with every track, of course, but the point is, Ashton is not a one trick pony. There is a lot going on if you take the time to listen to the music. But after Friday’s show, I wondered how many people were there for this reason as opposed to the spectacle and party.
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Because a spectacle and party it was. The light show was absolutely jaw dropping, the bass drops were enough to rumble your stomach out of your mouth, and the energy was bouncing into the red. As far as an experience goes, this was one for the books. There was little doubt left in my mind as to how (or why) the show sold out – and I was genuinely happy to see the way Bassnectar had grown as an artist and was now translating his music to a much larger audience. Back at BB Kings he performed to maybe 200 people at 3AM, and my friends and I walked in for free (sorry, Lorin) while the bouncer chatted up a girl. Now, he was performing to 5,000+ fans (hardly his largest crowd) for a 40-dollar ticket. What joy he must have, I thought, to be able to provide such an audio and visual marvel to thousands of adoring fans. What joy to be at the forefront of a musical revolution and grow into a wild success. What a success story for such a smart, talented and hard-working entertainer.
Then I began to look around at the cost, and that’s when things got weird. I hardly consider myself a prude to the parties, people and drugs that can be found along with a live music experience. I have been in my fair share of shows, and parking lots and have seen… stuff. But this was different. Perhaps the biggest difference was the level of decadence, or maybe the lack of substance to the scene, or maybe the blatant shadiness. Or maybe I’m just getting old. Regardless the reason, I was hit head-on with a new generation of concertgoers and the result was concerning. For blocks surrounding the venue, kids stumbled with dinner-plate pupils, grinding their jaws, or sitting moaning with their heads between their knees. A stretcher hauled a kid out to the ambulance out front. One of the more sober ones, smoking a cigarette, said to me “that must be the sixth one I’ve seen tonight.” On each corner within a five-block radius, portable streetlights shone down onto cop cars below. Neon-adorned fans crowded the streets and moved in herds with eerie uniformity. It was hard to think about the music at all.
My point here is not to discredit any electronic musician, any electronic music fan (I am one myself) or even the safe use of recreational drugs. My point is to draw attention to a scene that may have gotten ahead of itself and be spiraling towards a dangerous place. As “EDM” and music festivals continue to grow, there is a great amount of responsibility necessarily burdened to performers and promoters, but more importantly to the fans themselves. To avoid complete self-destruction, and consequently the loss of so many great new musical outlets, and more importantly the loss of human lives, we must return to two very simple adages. One, a message an old Deadhead and 100+ show Phish fan once told me: “You’re never doing it wrong if you’re listening to the music.” The music is, after all, why we are all here and what brings us together at shows. Let’s remember that and support the artists we love in a way that allows them to keep creating, while keeping the show experience pleasant for fellow concertgoers. And two, which is perhaps the most important in all aspects of life: take care of each other. You have to be alive to enjoy music, and it’s better to enjoy it with friends who are alive, too. By promoting the good things about the music, scenes and people we love (and protecting from the bad) we can necessarily guarantee longevity and growth that will continue to provide the music and moments we so desire. And that’s what it’s really all about, isn’t it?