Rest in peace chillwave. The genre that emerged just a few years ago and came to prominence over the last year has fallen out of favor. At least that's what some blogs would lead you to believe. With one of the most prominent names in the genre headlining a show in Denver, I went to see if these claims were true. The scene at the Bluebird Theater certainly didn't look like a funeral. There weren't scores of mourners dressed in black. There weren't boughs of flowers and other offerings placed about in memoriam. But there were a lot of people, and they seemed very excited to see what was up ahead.
The night began with an opening performance from Memoryhouse, an indie-pop group from Toronto. Although not necessarily chillwavers themselves, this dream pop and nu-gaze act certainly shared a bit in common with the headliner beyond just having the same record label, Sub Pop. Their somewhat laid-back yet lofty songs were carried by melodic vocals and a prominent but subdued wall of sound. Evan Abeele's guitar work brought about a shoegaze quality, while Denise Nouvion softened that textural sound with her charming and emotive voice. Denise Nouvion also handled a sampler/sequencer that provided further instrumental and ambient sound, while a drummer gave the band much more live presence.
Memoryhouse began their set with a selection of mellower songs from their catalog that shared the atmospheric and lo-fi aesthetic that was featured prominently on their first EP release, The Years. They gradually picked up the pace, playing some of the more '80s pop-rock inspired pieces off of their full length album The Slideshow Effect like "The Kids Were Wrong". The balance between the deliberate rhythms, noise-tinged guitar and soft melodic vocals presented a sort of more analog version of chillwave, especially with the performance of "All Our Wonder" - a good segue into the next act.
With much anticipation, Washed Out took the stage next. The chillwave project of Georgia-based Ernest Greene (lead vocals, keyboard/synth), Washed Out performed with three backing band members. A backup vocalist/keyboardist, bass/synth player, and live drummer rounded out the rest of the band. Together they created the characteristic chillwave sound; a blend of ethereal synth-heavy sound, heavily effected and reverberated vocals, and retro-esque new wave rhythms.
Washed Out's set began dramatically, with the lights in the Bluebird Theater going completely dark, and a synthesized wall of sound filling the dark void. As each band member took their places on stage, they were dimly lit by floor standing LED lights, creating multi-color celestial figures in the blank space. After the first few minutes of ambient sound and an introduction, the stage came to life with vivid light as the percussion came in. An impressive lighting rig with five evenly spaced towers framed the background, emitting bright flashes of light in ever changing colors, washing out eyes much like the constant wash of sound.
Their performance on this night seemed to have an extra emphasis on synth, as thick pads were just about as dominant as the heavily effected vocals. It had an entrancing effect on the crowd, as the audience seemed to bask in the abundance of warm sound. Although sometimes that meant songs stacked next to each other seemed very congruent, it kept the audience in a perpetual groove that was carried throughout the night. Standout songs like "Hold Out" and "Amor Fati" seemed to come towards the latter part of the set, which carefully built and grew the crowd's energy. It wasn't until the last song of the encore that Washed Out performed "Eyes Be Closed", which received an incredible roar from the crowd and was definitely the peak of the night.
By the look of Thursday's show, chillwave is alive and well. A crowd of both young and old came with much anticipation and seemed to leave the show satisfied. The carefully crafted combination of light and sound created an other-worldly atmosphere, allowing the crowd to dance the night away in a living dream. Perhaps naysayers are just a little bitter, or the genre just grew faster than they were ready for. They can continue to mourn, while everyone else will happily enjoy the ride.
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