Pretty Lights: The maiden voyage

I couldn’t quite review electronic performer Pretty Lights, since the music, the fans, and the entire scene were all about as familiar to me as a football playbook, so I just wrote a little story about how happy it seemed to make others. No comment on what else was probably making them extremely happy that night — I prefer to attribute it 100% to a lightshow, a DJ, a drummer, and lots of glowsticks.

It is 11pm on a Thursday night, and I am getting an “over 21” armband put around my wrist outside of the National. The girl next to me, the one poured into a tiny leopard-print dress, cheerfully holds up her hands to receive big, fat underage Xes.

Inside, Pretty Lights has begun their set. I’d driven by the National earlier, my progress slowed by a legion of Toyota Avalons who had stopped to allow the teens in the back seat to burst out onto the street in a flurry of glitter. I could see sixty or so people clustering under the marquee in clothes I couldn’t understand. The voice in my head that had whispered at that moment, “You might be out of your element,” reasserts its suspicion with more certainty the minute I walk into the venue. Or perhaps I’m confusing that voice with that of my similarly unsuspecting pal, Kelsey, who simply says, “Ohhhhhh my God.”

Like Dorothy after her house crashes in Munchkinland and she opens her front door to reveal a different world, nay, dimension, I see a wall of tightly-packed mass of dancers, fists raised high in silhouette against a backdrop of sweeping blue and violet lights. Pairs of girls flake off from the main herd and zoom by us on their way to the bathroom, leaving us stunned in their shiny, sequined wake. I get up the nerve to take a step closer to the dance floor.

Pretty Lights, a.k.a. Derek Vincent Smith, stands on a riser surrounded by his DJ accoutrements. Unlike his fans, he is dressed unnervingly simply in a button-up shirt and a cap, head bobbing as he presses various buttons and slides various sliders, layering samples over frantic beats. On his left, drummer Corey Eberhard occupies another riser. The effect is oddly stationary in the midst of such a roiling sea of energy. 11pm on a Thursday night. I am already tired.

My friend Johnny finds us huddled together, two drab birds in a flock of young toucans. “What is happening?!” I cry.

“It’s Pretty Lights,” he says, and with a heroic air, whisks us upstairs to where some friends of ours are safe in the VIP zone. We look at each other like I imagine people do who have fled a tornado and ended up in the same shelter. Now what?

My friend Anne wants to dance. She’s seen Pretty Lights before at Bonnaroo and is unfazed by our trepidation. “Let’s just go downstairs and dive in! It’s FUN.” I recoil in terror for one second before I realize she’s right. Those kids down there look extremely entertained. The only way to do this is to do it. And brother, I’m going to do just that.

I pound two glasses of wine for courage, and we charge downstairs, dragging our reluctant coterie behind us. I’m expecting a hard push to the front of the crowd, but to my surprise, this human swarm is flexible. They open up and close back around obligingly, happy to share the space for this nearly spiritual experience everyone is clearly having. I try hard to mimic their attitude, and it’s not too difficult. The wine is taking over, Anne has put on the glittery gold mask that she brought as a joke but ends up using to blend in, and nobody seems to care if we’re flailing around ironically or not.

I can dig this, in a way. Everyone is so happy and young. A girl motions to Anne that she’d like to try on her mask, and Anne complies without even thinking. I am not elbowed once. It’s a release, all this mindless dancing. No one’s trying to make jokes, no one’s worried about looking stupid, no one’s handing me a free glowstick, which blows, but no one’s spilling drinks on me either. Anne reaches over and removes the mask from our new friend, who doesn’t seem to mind. We’ve had our exercise, and everyone agrees that it’s time to go back upstairs for a bit.

Not me. I have a mission.

I go outside and walk up to the first group of people I see. “I’m writing a review of this show!” I announce. “But I don’t know anything about it, really. Want to fill me in?” Eyes light up as if no one had ever bothered to ask their opinion on anything before. People start to grab their friends and bring them over.

I meet Adam, 19,* and Ferris, 20, who both feel that the Pretty Lights show at the National is a big breakthrough for Richmond. They feel strongly that there isn’t enough of this kind of thing in town. That’s a big theme among my informers: Richmond has no scene. “That’s so surprising to me! I guess I always felt like Richmond is rife with music scenes, but maybe it’s lacking for this kind of music. What towns do a better job?” I ask. “Who should we emulate?”

After thinking about it for a minute, they tell me D.C. “Philly!” Someone says. Everyone agrees. “New YORK!!” says another, and his friend turns his face to the sky and shouts “New Yoooooooorkkkkkkk!” like he’s sounding a horn that will summon fellow Big Apple enthusiasts to his side. In my imagination, they’ll all dance their way up I-95, streaming into Manhattan and spreading good cheer wherever they go.

Corey, 22, has on white gloves with electric colored lights in the fingertips. He waves them around in my face, and I am mesmerized. Tim, 21, sees the gloves and grabs Corey’s hands. “I love these gloves!” he says. (I love them, too.) “Where can I get them?” They talk ravewear, introduce themselves to each other and to me, and talk to me more about how awesome Richmond is for booking this show. It’s as if they are thanking me, a representative of the city, which has planned an evening of delight just for them. Neither me nor the city have anything to do with each other or with the National’s booking, but it’s nice to hear it anyway.

I ask them some more questions about how Richmond can accommodate them further, because it’s clear that to them, tonight is an anomaly. I believe it’s Corey who keeps saying, “I mean look around you! There’s a show on a THURSDAY NIGHT and it’s SOLD OUT. When was the last time any show was sold out on a Thursday!” Everyone nods, yeah! Yeah!

“Well,” I can’t keep myself from interjecting. “I was here Monday night for Wilco, and that show sold out in, like, minutes.”

Utter silence. Who the hell is “Wilco.”

“My friend played Pretty Lights for me,” says Caile, 18. “The show is blowing my mind.” Amanda’s eighteen as well. She and most of the people I talk to keep bringing up the fact that the show is all ages.

“It’s just so nice to have a show that we can go to. Then you don’t have drunk people everywhere, too.” I am immediately conscious of my green armband, but I say, “That DOES get annoying!” She smiles at me indulgently.

Tim has an armband too, but I don’t see a drink in his hand. “Yeah, it’s nice that it’s all ages so the kids can come. I mean, you get tired of the kids after awhile, but they should be able to go to shows like this too.” His expression is totally genuine. Nobody seems to begrudge anyone anything, in Pretty Lights land.

“Wait, HOW old are you again?” I ask.

“Twenty-one,” he tells me patiently.

“Dude, I’m twenty-nine.”

More silence. No one knows quite what to say to me. Amanda shifts uncomfortably. Ten gray hairs spring from my scalp.

Everyone wants to know exactly where to read this review, so I tell them.** Johnny and Kelsey keep texting me wondering where I am. I reluctantly say my goodbyes and trudge back upstairs to my little cache of boring, old cronies, hopelessly jaded in our black clothes and crows’ feet. It’s all right, though, it’s 12:30 in the morning on a weeknight, and everyone is out way past our over-21 bedtimes. We look out from the balcony, over all the youth and spirit below that Pretty Lights has managed to create, foster, and keep at a steady level this entire time. Then we gratefully, exhaustedly head home.

I can’t say I understand it, but I can say that the dubstep-esque music of Pretty Lights is both exciting and important to a lot of people. I can also say that Anne was right — it’s a lot more fun to just put on a glittery mask and dive in.

You too can have the Pretty Lights experience all over the country this spring, namely at festivals like Coachella, Bella Music, Starscape, and Wanderlust. Listen to tracks online at and watch out for the upcoming EP, Making Up a Changing Mind.

*Apologies for any misspellings, misquotings, etc. The wave of enthusiasm was too fast for me to tap into my phone to get it all down correctly, I’m sure.
**You were all adorable. I hope somebody puts on a thousand shows for you sometime very soon.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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