They came here to dance to big sounds, deep into the tiny hours.
So they peel off their bulky winter jackets at the coat check like 2,000 Clark Kents and stride onto the dance floor, faces fixed with sequins, ears pierced with golf tees, garments aglow with chemiluminescent piping.
It’s the second-to-last Saturday night of 2012 at Echostage, a massive new club on Queens Chapel Road NE, just north of New York Ave. In three short months, the venue has already hosted some of the biggest names in electronic dance music — EDM, it’s called — and tonight, the big name is Porter Robinson, a 20-year-old DJ from North Carolina whose dazzling rise mirrors the genre’s global success.
Locally, the opening of Echostage feels like physical evidence of EDM’s good health. Nationally, that vitality can be measured in investments by concert promotion colossus Live Nation Entertainment and radio behemoth Clear Channel Communications, as well as hordes of other entrepreneurs lining up to cash in.
And while skeptics wonder whether the sudden arrival of monied patrons signals a craze bound to fizzle, it’s the genre’s ecosystem of artists, promoters and fans that they should be watching. For any type of live music to thrive, you need artists to push envelopes, promoters to give them a solid platform and fans to stay engaged. Echostage faithful seem to be experiencing just that, pledging their loyalty to the venue, the acts and especially to each other.
“The stage is sick, the lights are amazing and the crowd — they bring good people here,” says Bree Payne, 23, wearing a fuzzy hood fashioned to look like Cheshire Cat pelt. It’s Payne’s third visit to Echostage, and she prefers it to other area venues. “There’s EDM in clubs, but you’re packed into a tiny place. But here, you feel like you’re at a festival, and people come with that festival mentality. Everyone has costumes and glowsticks, and everyone’s ready to party.”
Before she can say much more, a friend wraps her in a hug and drags her off into the sparkly masses.
It’s been a busy December for Echostage. Tiesto, the Dutch trance DJ who made Forbes’s Celebrity 100 list this year, played two consecutive sold-out nights. The club booked Steve Angello of the Swedish House Mafia for Dec. 28. Flux Pavilion and Doctor P are scheduled to co-headline New Year’s Day. And after that, Echostage will go dark until March for renovations.
“We really want it to be a full experience on an international tier of quality,” says Echostage general manager Matt Cronin, who was brought in by the club’s parent company, Panorama Productions, in August. Before Echostage, Panorama was best known for its regular Glow parties, which brought world class DJs to packed Washington nightclubs. They’ve also hosted their share of full-blown raves at the D.C. Armory and have collaborated with Live Nation at the annual Identity Festival at Jiffy Lube Live.
Management is reticent to describe Echostage’s forthcoming upgrade in detail, but expect big things. This fall, after leasing the venue formerly known as D.C. Star, Panorama transformed the boomy, inhospitable nightclub into something bright and inviting. And in order not to miss out on a busy fall touring season, they did it in a hurry. Now, with the circuit slowing down for winter, they’ll have time to make serious tweaks.
Echostages’s capacity stands at 2,000 and that number is likely to rise after renovations, filling the gap between the area’s larger, 1,000-ish capacity nightclubs and Fairfax’s Patriot Center, which can hold 10,000. And Cronin stresses that Echostage won’t host just EDM.
“Rock shows, Latin shows, country shows . . . all genres of music are welcome here,” he says. “But we love EDM and we support it. . . And being able to fill a place like this on a regular basis shows that EDM is huge right now.”
Edward McMorrow’s attendance speaks to that. The 29-year-old has driven down from Connecticut because he likes Robinson and heard great things about Echostage. “It’s not like the pretentious bar scene with people grinding on each other,” McMorrow says. “It’s about dancing and embracing color and life. . . . It’s Haight-Ashbury for 2012, man.”
Appropriately, others in the crowd wear T-shirts that recycle flower power sentiments in Day-Glo fonts: “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR” and “DROP BEATS NOT BOMBS.” Women sport daisies in their hair (fake) and tattoos on their necks (real).
Jhoselinne Viscarra and Allisson Amaya, both 18, stroll into the club looking starry eyed, figuratively and literally. With constellations of sequins applied around their eye-shadow, they appear to have discovered Shangri-La off Bladensburg Road.
“Raving is supposed to be in a warehouse like this,” Amaya says. “This is amazing. Look at all these people!”
Robinson is backstage trying to keep out of sight before showtime. He drove long hours to get to Echostage, too — from Chapel Hill, N.C., where he lives with his parents and would likely be a sophomore in college had he not started producing breakout electro-house tracks during his senior year of high school.
After nearly two years of nonstop touring, the producer-DJ says his desire to hunker down on new material caused him to cancel four months of tour dates. Except for this one. Glow hosted one of Robinson’s favorite performances at Fur nightclub on Patterson St. NE in February.
“Maybe my best show ever,” Robinson says of that gig. “I was able to play cool, weird stuff and people were still down and interested.”
He’s as sincere as his fans, which makes recent talk about EDM plateauing in 2012 feel hollow. But Robinson tries not to concern himself with that.
“I’m not interested in moving EDM forward,” he says. “I’m mostly interested in advancing my own music and trying to make the best songs that I can make. . . . If EDM goes down, I’m going to keep making the music I enjoy, regardless. I want to convince myself that I can outlast a crash.”
That kind of music-first attitude is exactly what an untested genre needs from its young leaders, anyway. Robinson wants more from his music, more from his peers, more from his audience. Whenever he plays his signature track, “Language,” he’s hoping for a deeper response.
“I’ll see people cry in the audience to that song,” he says. “And that’s so much more interesting to me than making someone just jump up and down.”
It’s hard to find any tears spilling when Robinson finally cues up “Language” from the stage. Instead, a young woman in cheetah-print jeggings sings along with the lyrics — “I need room to breathe” — before immediately disregarding them and smothering her dude in a lip lock.
Robinson’s music triggers all kinds of physical responses. He’s a moderate maximalist, grafting an arsenal of explosive, ocean-floor bass timbres to a taut, four-on-the-floor grid. Echostage does its part to amplify the sensory overload. With beams of violet light blasting out on the crowd, animated smoke plumes glow on an LED billboard behind the DJ booth while actual smoke plumes come pfff-ing from machines on stage.
During “The Seconds,” a song that whiplashes between icy ambience and avalanches of synthesizers, Robinson shadowboxes with the beat, grabbing at melodies in the air in front of him. Fans respond with their own gestures, throwing their arms toward the ceiling as if trying to catch his sounds, or maybe announcing their surrender to them.
In an hour or two, when the speakers go quiet and the lights go dim, they’ll all be throwing their arms back into their coat sleeves and heading off into the December chill. But not yet.
To read additional interview excerpts with Porter Robinson, visit the Style Blog.
Reggae artist jah Lude performs at Echostage on Dec. 31. Flux Pavilion, Doctor P, Cookie Monsta, Funtcase, Brown & Gammon, Nixsin and Glock perform on Jan. 1. Excision, Paper Diamond and Vaski perform on March 23.