You don’t take acid. You run into your friends smoking in the little fence area outside the Roseland and one of them offers you some, but then it turns out your other friend ate it all. That’s probably for the best. You’re flying across the country on the red eye right after the show to spend Thanksgiving with your family. Somebody on the street walks by smoking a joint and the guy working the door starts shouting at all the cigarette smokers to “put it out!” so you all put your hands up and head inside. There are boxes of 3D glasses stacked by the guy taking tickets by the stairs, and he’s handing a pair to everybody who goes up.
Upstairs, the music has already started, and the bartenders are making a show of turning down people’s cards and pointing to the sign that reads cash only. There is an ATM back downstairs, which is assuredly the kind that will charge you a five dollar withdrawal fee in addition to any fees which may be imposed by your banking institution.
So-So Topic, the first opener, is about halfway through his set as you turn your attention to the stage. He’s the kind of rapper you haven’t heard of, but who wins you over by the end of his performance, which features some neck-snapping production and unexpectedly heartfelt lyrics that have a kind of off-the-cuff earnestness to them.
The next act is Tierra Whack, a rapper known for her double-time flows and out-there aesthetic. She’s accompanied by her goofy DJ Zack (Zach? Zak?), whose birthday she says it is. Her set culminates in a performance of “Mumbo Jumbo,” with the video playing on the big screen behind her. She and Zack both wear the dental lip retractors during the song, and it’s very weird and creepy, which you assume is the point.
After Tierra Whack comes PBDY (pronounced peabody), whose set could be described as a kind of synth porn, less music than a rhythmic exploration of the grinding drones you can produce with with enough modulated current. “Am I old?” your friend who ate all the acid keeps asking, looking around to see if anybody is visibly enjoying the music. PBDY’s sound plumbs the gravelly depths of the electric aesthetic. It cannot get grimier than this without being pure noise. You can appreciate it from a theoretical standpoint, but it’s kinda stressful to listen to.
After PBDY comes the requisite breakdown/set-up time between the openers and the headliner of any show. Darkly clothed techies move about the dark stage, plugging and unplugging various pieces of equipment. At the center of the stage is a podium made to look like a space rock. Eventually a figure emerges from the wings and comes to stand behind it, fiddling with some unseen knobs, testing the buttons. People begin to cheer, and the figure is lit for a moment in a blue-green spotlight. It’s him, Flying Lotus, shaggier than the last time you saw him, but immediately recognizable nevertheless. On stage he’s still all cheshire-esque smile on a silhouette cut from the shifting digital backdrop. He presses some buttons and the music starts.
You put on your glasses, and the patterns on the screen behind Flylo come into focus. As he works his way through a medley of tracks from Cosmogramma, behind him appear kaleidoscopic mandalas, expanding fractiles, clouds and orbs and sine waves that look like the iTunes visualizer circa 2009, recessions into z-space through a field of green dots, a yonic display of undulating tentacles and tunnels and rays of triangular light flowing through a prism of colors.
As he gets to his material from You’re Dead, you watch bodies bathed in red light spinning in space, then faces emerging from the screen’s plane as though breaking the surface of an incredibly still pond. The faces begin twisting and melting in a strangely algorithmic fashion the way only CGI can do, a kind of mathematically perfect disintegration.
All of this is entertaining, but your suspicions are confirmed that there isn’t going to be any secret new material played at this show. Flying Lotus has been focused on film for the last few years, having released his Lynchian debut, Kuso, at Sundance this past year, to mixed reviews. The 3D-ness of the visuals is a cool gimmick, but it’s in some ways not as effective as his previous setup, which had his DJ booth behind a transparent screen onto which a regular 2D video feed was projected, giving the image an almost three-dimensional quality without the need for glasses. This was also just after the release of his originally anonymous rap album, Duality, under the alias Captain Murphy, and part of the set involved him coming out from behind the screen to rap, which added a nice metaphorical layer to the performance–a commentary on the relationships of separation between viewer and performer, DJ and rapper, celebrity and persona.
You turn to your friend, the one who ate all the acid, and ask him what he thinks of the visuals. “This is like what people who don’t do drugs think doing drugs is like,” he says, and you can see his point. You never really understood the over-the-top psychedelic aesthetic often found at shows and in head shops, the tie-dye and neon space shit and trippy patterns that, when you’re actually on drugs, end up just seeming contrived and lame, someone trying to replicate and commodify an experience that they have no hope of ever even coming close to understanding.
After a particularly noisy climax, Fly-Lo cuts the music out, then comes back in with a single sparse beat that eventually builds into Kendrick’s “King Kunta,” then morphs into Thundercat’s “Friend Zone,” and then into Kendrick’s “Wesley’s Theory.” He does this for a while, blending together barebones versions of West coast hits by his associated acts, all while the visualizer cycles through more patterns and colors and lights.
After a while longer, Fly-Lo hits the autopilot button on his space-rock console and grabs the mic. “This is the last night of the show, I gotta see this shit!” he says, and leaps down off the stage, into the crowd. People start minorly freaking out, and from your vantage about halfway back, you can see pretty much where he’s at by the telltale commotion of bodies that surrounds any famous person moving through a packed crowd. The music keeps playing, and the lights keep going, and you begin to wonder just how much of all of this is made by machines.
This is the biggest problem facing all touring producer/DJ’s–the struggle to make it feel like they’re actually doing something, because the reality is that all of their music can easily be automated to play by itself while they run around stage and throw cakes into the crowd, or whatever. When Fly-Lo gets back onto the stage, he starts talking, saying how much he loves playing live, explaining that his set is actually improvised, and that the guys in charge of the 3D are also matching visuals to the music on the fly.
You don’t doubt that this is the case, but you wonder if knowing that it’s improvised makes any difference. You’ve played enough ableton DJ sets yourself to know that what he’s doing isn’t easy, but playing music from a computer will always be less impressive somehow than people up there with old-school instruments. You imagine he’ll play a few more songs after his little thank-you speech, but you’ve got a flight to catch.
You’re traveling light, so you don’t have to wait to check a bag. The airport is basically empty, so security is quick, but the walk to your gate seems impossibly far. On the way you pass a man on the vacuum cleaner equivalent of a riding mower. He stares ahead catatonically, his machine sucking up invisible debris.
It’s the flight that nobody is particularly stoked to be taking, the red-eye couldn’t-get-off-work-till-thanksgiving-proper flight, leaving at 12:30 a.m. on Turkey Day morning. All of you will be arriving weary-eyed and just in time to help your aunt or grandma cook, and to give the same how’ve-you-been update speech to a series of relatives you haven’t seen since Thanksgiving last year. You’re seated in the exit row, and the red-faced flight attendant asks you and your row-mates for verbal confirmation that you’ll be willing to assist in case of an emergency. “Yes,” you all say in sleepy unison. “Sir,” adds a middle-aged man across the aisle, “I’m also a first responder.”
“Excellent,” says the attendant in perfect deadpan. “I’ll let them know.” You’re not sure who he means by “them.” You put on an old Johnny Dyani album, Witchdoctor’s Son, and close your eyes, head up against the window. You sleep for a time, and when you wake the sun is just breaking over the endlessly flat Texan horizon, and the African jazz is still playing, the horns in harmony and the light coming in red-gold waves that seem as you watch to fill up all that the space, beaming through the wisps of cloud so close it looks like you could reach out and touch them.