As soon as I stepped into Grand Central, I knew this was no press-play affair. The stars of the night, Gramatik and Exmag, were no ordinary DJs. They were artists, beatcrafters with a vision and a hell of a lot of soul. The night was best described as a shining homage to the 70s, re-envisioned through the kaleidoscopic heads-up-display of the 21st century.
The artists were different. The crowd was different. There were no haughty South Beach elite. Aside from a few wayward souls in fishnets and gas masks, there were no bros pushing and shoving and asking for “mollies”. There were only warm, respectful people here to have a good time. We all bobbed and swayed and danced, content do our own thing, unconcerned with what everyone else thought about the goofy way we flailed our arms or moved our hips. This was a humble night, a genuine night.
The show began with a performance by Exmag, the brainchild of Brooklyn-based producers Eric Mendelson, Tyler Dondero, Mike Iannatto, ILLUMNTR, and, of course, the headliner himself, Gramatik. With live guitar, keyboard, vocals and beatmixing, the group wowed the crowd with a dazzlingly funky jam session that felt like it was pulled straight out of Studio 54. There was no pretension, no ego on the stage. There was just a bunch of friends in baseball caps jamming and having fun. And believe me, the fun was infectious. It was impossible not to smile and boogie. Between the high-pitched singing, bluesy guitar, and bumping beats, Exmag’s performance was a perfectly sublime synthesis of electronic music and good old-fashioned soul and, in my opinion, the absolute best of the night.
After Exmag, things changed quite dramatically when Atlanta trap producer HeRobust took the stage. HeRobust immediately amped up the energy and it was actually quite jarring at first. His set was a stark contrast to the smooth happenings of Exmag before him, but HeRobust fed the crowd’s primal urge to dance like a total fool, so we all warmed up to him quickly. He dropped a bombastic set full of screeching trebles and bumping bass (although perhaps a little too screeching). It was nothing particularly inspired, but, to HeRobust’s credit, it had its bangers. Needless to say, the crowd got down and dirty. On the whole, however much it paled in comparison to the performances before and after, HeRobust’s set was pretty fun and served as a healthy reminder not to take anything, even your taste in music, too seriously.
By the end of HeRobust’s set, it was obvious everybody was itching for Gramatik to take the stage though. We’d been given a taste of the funk by Exmag and now we were all craving more. Finally, the moment came. Gramatik, supported again by Mendelson on the guitar, stepped onto the stage. As soon as the music started playing, all of the chaos and mayhem (albeit fun mayhem) left by HeRobust’s bulldozer of a set suddenly became right again.
The genius, the flawless synergy between Gramatik and Mendelson was immediately apparent. Between Gramatik’s banging beats and impeccable timing and Mendelson’s killer licks and riffs, the entire venue was infected with an insatiable need to move. This was nothing like the raw, wild energy of the previous set. This was something more intimate and, in a way, more primal too. This was the transcendental groove, that beautiful, rhythmic presence deep within all of us.
Mendelson in particular definitely earned the title of MVP of the night. He absolutely nailed it on the guitar. Between tight, funky hooks and long, bluesy improvisations, he recalled the rock-and-roll titans of old. I couldn’t help but air-guitar along.
The presence of live instrumentation in the set made for a refreshingly organic experience. The interplay between Gramatik and Mendelson proved to be a much needed change of pace from the same, tired, cookie-cutter DJ sets we’ve all grown used to. Indeed, organic is a good way to describe their entire performance. The two struck a healthy balance between the sets before them. They maintained an energetic presence while still injecting their act with the raw “feel” that made this concert so different. They vibed with the crowd and the crowd vibed with them. Guiding us through crashing highs and buttery lows, Gramatik’s performance was like an undeniably sexy suckerpunch to the face.
Overall, the night was a special one. It was a chance to see the past, present, and future of music collide into one exhilarating sonic spectacle. It was a revival and a celebration of the long lost soul that we’ve all been so desperately missing. It was an ushering in of the Age of Reason.