Review: Bassnectar, Anderson .Paak, The Chainsmokers at X Games Aspen
Sold-out crowds braved extremely cold temperatures Friday and Saturday night at Buttermilk for a string of X Games musical performances that ranged from extraordinary to extraordinarily dull.
On the upside, Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals put on a phenomenal genre-hopping show in their local debut. While on the other end of the spectrum, the hit-making DJ duo The Chainsmokers played a lazy, lifeless and confounding set.
The reported wind chill temperature at Buttermilk was -7 on Friday night when Bassnectar took the stage and kicked off the concert series.
“Everybody take a layer off,” the Bay Area EDM superstar deadpanned early on.
Alone on a stage plastered in massive LED screens, mixing songs behind shooting fireballs, lasers and smoke cannons, his painstaking performance was a master class for how to piece together a 75-minute festival-style set. There were no lulls in the action as he varied his tempos, mashed up pop songs and reimagined his own productions.
He kept the capacity crowd of Bassheads dancing and involuntarily vibrating from the body-quaking bass as he remixed familiar tracks from the Bassnectar catalog — including a trippy, standout take on “The Matrix” — along with showcasing some unreleased material and new mashups.
During a bassed-up passage mixing Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By” and The Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La,” the Navy Parachute Team made a surprise appearance overhead. They leapt from a plane and sailed over the crowd, trailing fireworks as they swooped down, one of them unfurling a massive American flag before landing beside the superpipe. Between that, the on-stage pyrotechnics and the high drama of Bassnectar’s signature noise-metal electronic style, it was quite literally a spectacular show.
Saturday’s bill opened at dusk with a buoyant, virtuosic hourlong sprint of a performance from Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals. They moved smoothly between hip-hop, funk, jazz and rock (with a dash of disco). Playing to a thinner crowd than the primetime acts, the versatile rapper, drummer and bandleader —with a three-piece band and a DJ — gave X Games the musical high point of the weekend.
He opened with the funky hip-hop hit “Come Down” and stayed in that milieu for “Milk n’ Honey” and “Drugs” before moving to the drums and heading into more adventurous terrain exploring different styles.
“I can’t feel my hands, y’all!” he cried with a laugh as he first sat down at his drum kit — the sun and the temperature going down quickly.
He and The Free Nationals played a funked-up take on “The Season,” showcasing .Paak rapping and drumming simultaneously and guitarist Jose Reyes playing a soaring classic rock guitar line. That transitioned into a partly improvised spoken word version of the sneaker story “Carry Me,” which led into a hard funk take on “Put Me Thru” and the upbeat R&B of “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance.” From there, .Paak hopped off the drum kit and went back into emcee mode, standing center stage to spit the labyrinthine rhymes of “The Waters.” Later, on “Miss Right,” he went around the horn in the jazz tradition, giving everybody in the band a solo.
And that’s how all of this powerhouse hourlong set went, with .Paak moving seamlessly between modes and styles until he ended his encore with a disco funk rendition of “Luh You.”
He oozed charm and talent, didn’t use any pre-recorded vocals and blew the X Games crowd away with meticulous musicianship.
A few hours later, when The Chainsmokers took the stage, the difference was stark.
The electronic music duo’s fans have spun their infectious “Don’t Let Me Down” more than a billion times on YouTube and The Chainsmokers have several songs with Spotify streams numbering in the hundreds of millions. They know how to produce an earworm of a pop song. But their live show is a mess.
Whereas Bassnectar played for more than an hour nonstop, with seamless transitions, nuggets of fan favorites, thoughtful mashups and steady build-ups to the big bass drops, The Chainsmokers stumbled through a clunky set of fits and starts while making many creative choices that were downright bonkers (when did it become OK for any DJ — outside of a bar mitzvah — to un-ironically play Kiss’ “I Wanna Rock N Roll All Night” unaltered and yell at a crowd to dance?).
And where Anderson .Paak genre-hopped flawlessly between rap and jazz, rock and R&B within a unified creative vision and with a consistent voice, The Chainsmokers just threw a careless grab bag of pre-packaged sounds at their audience.
They fist-pumped. They sort of danced. They lip-synched a bit. But mostly Drew Taggart and Alex Pall just let tracks play from their little-touched soundboards. Occasionally they yelled into the microphone in various combinations of numbers and words like “Aspen,” “X Games,” “ready” and “go.” To wit: “1, 2, 3, let’s go!” and “4, 3, 2, 1, go!” and “X f—ing Games!” and “Are you ready for the treble bass!”
This show felt like the sonic equivalent of a frozen, microwaveable Guy Fieri meal — all empty calories and spice and no flavor.
That said, I don’t disparage any of the more than 6,000 X Gamers who had fun dancing in the snow during The Chainsmokers’ set. It’s a blast to sing along with a big crowd as hits like “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Kanye” and “Paris” and “Closer” play on a pristine sound system, with a laser light show going overhead and cartoons playing on big screens. Given how little they did musically onstage, I’m just not convinced the actual Chainsmokers had to be there to do it. It might have been a decent show if they hadn’t been.
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