X Games Aspen: Illenium plays and remixes his best for energetic crowd
Energy is something ever-present in music, especially so in EDM. Today’s audiences expect a combination of build-ups and lulls, of gentle sways and flailing. Longtime Coloradan and rising EDM mainstay Illenium, the first of this weekend’s X Games headliners to sell out his show, was acutely aware of the shifting energy in his largely college-aged or younger crowd, working it to his advantage to keep the audience entertained through a 90-minute set at the Buttermilk stage.
The tension could be felt before he even began, as crowds of teens and 20-somethings flooded into the venue 40 minutes before showtime, jockeying to find friends and good positions. The audience quickly sorted itself into three sections, depending on their desired experience: The quiet and alcohol seekers in the back of the converted Panda Peak; the pairs and impromptu dance parties filling out the center, with friend groups and couples anticipating the first drop; and the solid mass of bodies pushed against the stage, shrouded by a haze of cannabis and fogged breath.
Following the pit’s shared loudspeaker dance to Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” Nicholas Miller, known professionally as Illenium, walked on to an erupting crowd as the quiet voiceover that leads his latest album, “Ascend,” played over the speakers.
“It’s unavoidable,” the woman’s voice began, “Just happens. When you grow up, your heart dies.”
“Who cares?” both the male response and the crowd replied in unison, voicing the dichotomy of millennial cynicism and earnestness present in any good modern EDM lyric.
And with that, the energy released.
Miller started by making his way through quick, one-chorus impressions of some of his well-known songs, including the booming voice of Foy Vance paired with heavy dubstep drops in “Blood,” and the sing-along choruses of “Crawl Outta Love” and “Where’d You Go?” Anyone unaware of the lyrics could make correct noises to the easily singable melodies.
From there, Miller worked through an eclectic medley of his catalog, ranging from well-known favorites of “Crashing,” “Sound of Walking Away” and his remix of The Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” to less-vocal songs from his earlier career including “So Wrong” and “In Your Wake.”
Through it all, Miller acted masterfully to keep the audience entertained – pounding out drum fills on an electric setup surrounding his laptop and gliding across the fretboard of his guitar, both solo and as a duet with an onstage extra. As the temperature dropped and the audience flagged, Miller kept track, timing his beat changes to pick the crowd back up, even going so far as a rallying cry, “Can you all bring some energy right now?” before launching into a reverberating, “Three, two, one!” and a dubstep breakdown.
However, as with many EDM artists hoping to play to the crowd, Miller returned to the choruses and drops of his songs multiple times. In each, he tried to make it feel fresh with different riffs or an unexpected cross into a new melody, but the latter half of the 90 minutes started eliciting feelings of deja entendu.
In the end, Miller seemed like he was going to finish his set by giving the crowd what they truly wanted: A communal moment of musical recognition.
He worked through an extended mash-up of “Sad Songs” and his newest hit with vocalist Jon Bellion, “Good Things Fall Apart.” Lyrics intertwining and audience jumping, Miller brought the crowd to a swell before one final twist: Ending the night with an unreleased song titled “Feel Something.” The crowd reacted with slight surprise, but the residual cheer meant no one stopped dancing. Illenium brought his A-game to the homestate crowd of waiting fans, playing hits, crossing genres, paying homage to his beginnings and drawing and releasing the energy of the venue, making sure everyone left wanting more and wondering when the next song was coming.
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Jazz Aspen Snowmass will hosts its annual June Experience and JAS Cafe concert series in-person this summer, releasing details and lineups Monday.