Courtesy of Graham Glass

The Santa Barbara Bowl was illuminated with nostalgic energy as legendary ’90s electronica duo, The Chemical Brothers, prepared to ignite the venue with a breathtaking performance on April 16 that marked the start of the 2023 Santa Barbara Bowl show season. As the sun set over the iconic downtown Santa Barbara venue, the crowd that mostly comprised those aged 30 and above wandered around the bowl in their bucket hats and sunglasses, channeling ’90s underground rave.. Opener Overmono soundtracked the hustle and bustle of the preshow socialization, preparing the audience  for what they were about to experience with their United Kingdom garage and ambient beats. It was the perfect music to settle everything in — existing throughout the venue somewhat subtly — allowing for an even more intense surprise with the show everyone was about to encounter. As the cool evening breeze descended and the sky shifted from a vibrant orange hue to a deep, dark shade of purple, dopamine filled the air that ignited both the pit and the stands. It was evident that the Santa Barbara Bowl’s 2023 season was about to begin on a special note.

It was precisely 8 p.m., and while the sky was not completely dark yet, bright, flashing white lights accompanying  the staggered beats of the music built the anticipation, and The Chemical Brothers took the stage. The Manchester-based British duo greeted the crowd and made their way to their DJ equipment, which looked more comparable to a scientific lab than the typical DJ setup at most EDM concerts today. The lab of “chemical” sounds included multiple keyboards and massive synthesizers and MIDI pads, along with many other devices one could not even begin to name barricaded around the two performers. As the screams of excitement from the crowd echoed into the open sky, the wobbling hi-hats and bass hits sped up, transitioning into The Chemical Brothers’ opening song, “Block Rockin’ Beats.” The Grammy award-winning song — in the “Best Rock Instrumental Performance” category — was a fitting choice to begin the show with, showcasing the heavy rock/hip-hop/gritty electronic sound that played throughout the night. Accompanying the music was the first set of otherworldly visuals to play on the massive LED screen behind the duo all evening. Spotlights placed in an array behind the screen shone out of the screen in a laser-like fashion, creating a three-dimensional effect that drew viewers in and made the whole show more interactive. 

After the strong opening of “Block Rockin’ Beats,” the brothers introduced themselves by shifting into a performance of “C-h-e-m-i-c-a-l.” The lyrics sounded off, “The C, the H, the E, the M / The I, the C, the A, the L / The brothers / The brothers.” In the final words, the lights and sound focused on the DJs as they both lifted their left hands synchronously in a bowing manner. Immediately after this, The Chemical Brothers went into one of their popular songs, “Go,” crafting one of the more iconic experiences of their Santa Barbara Bowl performance. While the song vibrated through the Bowl, sets of glowing neon pink humanoid figures, surrounded by fluorescent green boxes and a sight reminiscent of the Grid in the Tron movies were projected. Pink spotlights shone out as the towering pink people played the boxes like drums and pianos, projecting colorful 3D soundwaves into the audience. As “Go” faded into “MAH,” the thrilling visuals persisted, and a towering, crowned figure painted in white and adorned with an alienesque mask emerged, flailing its arms and mouthing the repeating words, “I’m mad as hell, I ain’t gonna take it no more.” As the music built and the electro kicks got louder and faster, the angry figure put his fingers out toward the audience for the beat drop as he disappeared from the screen, and multiple white spotlights glitched out into the crowd, creating one of the most visually thrilling beat drops of the entire show. The thunderous cheers of the audience were eclipsed only by the spine-tingling, high-pitched laser beam sounds emanating from The Chemical Brothers’ electrifying performance.

The stunning visuals accompanying The Chemical Brothers’ performance were a feast for the eyes and an essential component of what made the show genuinely extraordinary. Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall, a duo who has worked with The Chemical Brothers on concert visuals for over 20 years, directed the show. They crafted an experience like no other in EDM music, grasping every emotion from the audience. The show features intense and eerie visuals reminiscent of devilish imagery that one might encounter in an acid-induced horror movie. It also included lighthearted and whimsical scenes, like a group of disco-dancing, sliced pepperoni-like figures grooving to the upbeat rhythm of “Got To Keep On.” Many of these visuals served as their own sort of short film, displaying choreographed actors in eclectic costumes creating a storyline fitting to the sounds and vigor of the moment. In the tale shown in “Eve Of Destruction,” a middle-aged woman becomes a cartoonish superhero and fights groups of funky villains, such as lobster people and a robot wizard with an electric baton. 

Courtesy of Graham Glass

Encountering the synchronous experience of The Chemical Brothers’ music, lights and stories at the Santa Barbara Bowl was a surreal evening filled with dancing, emotion and jaw-dropping sights. The soundtrack felt like one lengthy song, tying beats together to keep the audience on their toes with their hands in the air. The Santa Barbara Bowl rarely experiences energy this viscerally exhilarating, and how special of an event for it to be happening on the opening night of the 2023 season. The Chemical Brothers successfully delivered a performance that was nothing short of exceptional, kicking off the 2023 Santa Barbara Bowl show season on a high note with their breathtaking music, otherworldly visuals and unforgettable energy. It was a truly surreal experience that left the crowd awestruck and eager for more.

This appeared in the April 27th Daily Nexus printed edition.