Roseland Theater, Portland, OR

I almost saw Steven Ellison – known to you and me as Flying Lotus – once. Why is this significant? This remains the one time the crowd at a concert bested me. I had my body bruised at Refused, my hand clawed at Girl Talk, and called “a faggot” at the Weeknd – all of these at the Roseland, by the way – but it was Flying Lotus at MusicFest Northwest that ruined me. He performed as part of a Nike-sponsored show at MusicFest Northwest 2012 just before Until the Quiet Comes came out. I’d been a fan since Los Angeles ripped my brain out, and was excited to finally see him for the first time. The crowd that awaited me was, in a word, repulsive. The venue had a vile dudebro aura potent enough to rival the Chernobyl power plant.

I made it 25 minutes through opener Jacques Greene before I fled to see the Old 97s perform Too Far To Care and had a much happier night. For years, I would wince when I saw the name on Pollstar, another show by a great artist I felt sorta weird about seeing. Times change, though, and as others grow colder, I grow more drawn in by madcap gimmickry. Flying Lotus’ current tour is billed as “Flying Lotus 3D,” meaning that the man is performing in front of a wall of LED squares designed for high-def 3D imagery. I’m a sucker for good visuals at concerts, too, so this seemed like the best time to take a shot at finally seeing him perform.

The atmosphere within the Roseland is a strange one, in a way that I can’t quite put a finger on. There are two openers and a DJ, but neither opener is compelling enough to the sold-out crowd to elicit anything resembling their attention. I don’t want to say that it’s the worst reception I’ve ever seen for openers, but it was perhaps the most ambivalent. Luckily neither opener was given much more than half an hour, with FlyLo taking the stage almost exactly at 10:30.

Ellison took the stage entirely alone. This is to be expected; we always want our rappers and DJs to have backing bands because live hip-hop is far more compelling, but we aren’t that lucky. Instead, it’s just him, standing behind a DJ booth festooned with LED lights of all sizes and made to look like it’s made of rusted pipes – if the Mos Eisley Cantina got a world-class DJ, it would look like this. Behind him is a massive panel of LED tiles, high enough definition that the 3D imagery they produce is truly, legitimately gorgeous. Flying Lotus is a surprise master of performance aesthetic, and the colorful environments created to accompany the music – sometimes landscapes, sometimes cartoons, sometimes fire, sometimes just colors doing a coordinated dance – are truly a sight to behold. It’s essentially like if the creators of those old Microsoft screensavers were given a million dollar budget and as much acid as they wanted – and I mean all of this in the best possible way.

Ellison performed with an ever-present backing track, but would occasionally pick up the mic to spit a couple bars – on a couple occasions, he even left the booth to stalk the stage while he rapped, playing to the people potentially upset that they didn’t get much of a “performance.” He kept mostly quiet between songs, talking at length just once while opining the loss of collaborator/friend Ras G, who he penned “Black Heaven” for. Then, near the end: “Tonight feels really good. You know what would feel even better? If Thundercat was here.” And like magic, there he was: even shrouded in darkness, Flying Lotus’ best collaborator, Stephen Bruner – otherwise known as Thundercat, shone in the darkness. Armed with his comically-large semi-hollow bodied bass, the two of them played a couple songs together, Thundercat’s slap bass cutting through the electronic waves wonderfully. It was just flashy enough to seem like a treat to get him on a stage, but not enough to overshadow the rest of the show.

The downside is that the Roseland remains one of the spottiest venues in Portland when it comes to bass-driven music, and at the front of the room the lower frequencies of FlyLo’s music turned the rest of the mix into shuddering soup. What’s more, watching a guy in the dark behind a DJ booth isn’t the most compelling thing in the world to watch, and even with dazzling visuals the mind struggles to find something more tangible to grab onto that isn’t just pretty color. This is inherent to the form though, and certainly not Ellison’s fault. Really, he should be commended for taking the steps to put something behind him that’s cool enough that you never feel like you threw away money just to dance while a silhouette bobs in the darkness. It’ll be interesting to see if he’s able to one-up this for any future tours – as long as it stays dudebro-free, I’ll be happy to turn out to check it out for myself.

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