Above & Beyond Surprises with Skrillex and a Stellar Acoustic Show: Review
About two-thirds of the way into their mostly-acoustic performance on Sunday night, their second in a row at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater, Above & Beyond asked their friend with nice glasses, Sonny Moore, to join them on stage. Moore, of course, is multiple-Grammy-winning DJ Skrillex, and the audience audibly realized this upon seeing the longhaired dubstep icon walk onto stage and pick up a guitar. But while Skrillex’s presence lent some star power to the stage, the trance trio needed no assistance with their sound, as across their 90-minute set, they proved not only the durability of their own material, but the possibility in transposing the entire genre of trance to live instrumental form.
As reported in August by Billboard, Above & Beyond first began their acoustic project in London earlier this year, bringing a small orchestra to Los Angeles for just these two shows. The ensemble included a harpist, horn player, upright bassist, string quartet, guitarist, percussionist and three vocalists, plus each member of A&B taking on multiple instrumental duties. The group’s Tony McGuinness acted as de facto emcee, while also playing a variety of guitars and even singing (as he does occasionally on record). Jono Grant sat mostly at a Rhodes while sometimes working a vibraphone and Paavo Siljamäki played a Bösendorfer piano and made a casual attempt at playing the cello on one song.
Skrillex had attended the Saturday night show and – according to Above & Beyond’s camp – had enjoyed it so much, he asked if he could contribute to Sunday night. The group readily agreed, reportedly around 3am, leading to a swirl of gossip in the unusually large pre-show industry crowd backstage (which perplexingly included rapper Azealia Banks).
Despite forgivably awkward stage banter and frequent outbursts from audience members who confusingly thought they were at a rave, Above & Beyond created one of the finest and more memorable shows in EDM history. Rather than merely reinterpreting the lush strings and extended loops of their records, the group rearranged their catalogue, rendering much of their material anew while showcasing the formidable chops of the night’s rotating lead vocalists, in particular Annie Drury and frequent A&B collaborator Zoe Johnston.
Arranger Bob Bradley is largely to thank for the set’s arrangements; acting as musical director, Bradley turned the limitations of trance music into assets. While trance records can be reliant on an emotionally evocative arrangement, this performance left nowhere to hide an incomplete lyrical thought or repetitive melody. Bradley’s arrangements expanded each work into its own entity, wholly contained and confidently distributed amongst the musicians on stage.
“One of the things this whole experience has brought home for us is how important the whole songwriting process is,” McGuinness told the audience towards the end of the show. An unusual statement from a musician after a decade of being in a band and releasing three artist albums, it highlights the challenges in translating material designed on machines into content delivered on live instruments.
While there were moments of underdeveloped ideas (as on new song “Blue Sky Action”) most of the set (as on “Miracle” and “You Got To Go”) soared with the best of what Above & Beyond brings to their electronic performances: an abundance of passion and a clearly genuine desire to connect with their audience through music.
At times, the performance recalled Zero 7 or Portishead’s “Roseland NYC Live” album from 1998. It was orchestral and ethereal while still rooted in the world of electronica. As other artists of the EDM era look to find what makes them unique or durable, they would benefit from walking in the ground broke by Above & Beyond with this acoustic project. As the surprisingly mature and eager crowd at the Greek Theater proved this past weekend, there is always an appetite for true musicianship and the sincere expression of faith in the language of music – be that at 150 bpm or unplugged.