One listen to his outstanding 2014 LP Worlds and it’s evident that Chapel Hill’s Porter Robinson stands out tremendously from the electronic dance music pack. It boasts a sophisticated sense of structure and song, of melodic and textural ideas that are the anthesis of the formulaic build-to-crescendo-to-bass-drop template that’s been all over the festival and club circuit for the past four or five years. As our Patrick Meehan pointed out in his concert preview last week, a quick disillusionment with the dance music factory led Robinson to refocus on writing what he viewed as a personal statement.
While his outside-the-box approach to the record is clear and commendable, his approach to performing, on display at The Tower on Friday night, still sits very much within the EDM DJ wheelhouse. Robinson took the stage in front of several towering LED screens of flickering manga animation and behind a clear plexiglass altar; with him, he had a laptop, some instrumental gear and a GoPro. He did play keys and sing along to the sampled hooks, as on opener “Sad Machine,” but his live contributions didn’t exactly leap out from the mix; more noticeable were his rhythmic additions, performed with vigor on a rack of drum pads, as on the funky fun “Flicker,” which pounds a fierce rhythm to an infectious sample of a Japanese rap. When he wasn’t drumming, singing or playing the piano, Robinson fixated on his screen and samplers, lining up parts on the console and firing them off with a dramatic wave of his arm, applying filters and effects with emphatic twists of knobs.
Lest I come across as dismissive and cynical here, let me acknowledge that the art of EDM goes well beyond mere button-pushing. It requires skilled arrangement and timing, a knack for constructing a recorded banger that audiences love and then re-inventing that banger for the live setting in a clever fashion. Some musicians take this live component more seriously than others – Robinson being one of them by far, even if he is overselling when he doesn’t necessarily need to – whereas less engaging acts rely on the flashy light show and plumes of CO2 smoke without much personal energy (ahem Calvin Harris), thus spawning those jokes about DJs who hit space bar and collect bags with dollar signs on them. Perhaps it’s more of a reflection of the live EDM scene in general: just by coming to the front of the stage and playing an understated keyboard accompaniment, Robinson is a game-changingly different performer.
But those DJ tropes that he uses – the smoke cannons, the confetti, the mystical animation – absolutely fit, largely because they make the show feel like an EDM concert. From the floor, it’s a total euphoric blast, whether you’re waving your arms along with “Hear the Bells” as Robinson works the crowd, or you’re trying to follow the good-versus-evil plot of the video game styled projections (my takeaway is that it involved a looming man-beast with antlers who travels between two worlds: pastoral scenes of nature and more shadowy industrialized settings), or simply dancing in the confetti as it rains down on you. Robinson may be an art-first artist, but he recognizes the need to be a good showman as well, and that balance is key.
Friday’s set included “Fellow Feeling,” the track on Worlds that arguably is the biggest challenge to dance music convention, and it went over spectacularly. The opening Copeland-esque string arrangements gave way to a narrator reciting a soliloquy over a bubbling trance backing – pondering the themes that we saw on the screens behind Robinson: a dying world, light and darkness. And then, the payoff: the music cut out, the voice was left alone, imploring “now please, hear what I hear,” ushering in three minutes of abstract, dissonant cut-up rhythms. If this is the next big sea change to follow up the bass drop, I’m all about it, and through it all, the crowd was hooked, showing that while they were here for the party, they wanted to use their minds as much as lose them.
Opening the show were two modestly received DJ sets. DC’s Lindsey Lowend kept things mid-tempo and samey, was pleasant but nothing tremendously standout. San Francisco’s Charlie Yin, aka Giraffage, fit the forward-thinking mindset of Robinson a bit more closely, beginning his set with extremely relaxed, chill tempos that progressively built into something more rhythmic and gripping, culminating in a pitch-modulated spin of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” that sounded like something out of Tears for Fears. By the time he wrapped, the standing room floor of the Tower was grooving along. Check out photos from the show in the gallery below.