Thanksgiving is a day of coming home. For Antonio Cuna, this year’s Thanksgiving was a homecoming. Cuna, who produces electronic music as Sweater Beats, grew up in Rockville, and late Wednesday night — or, more accurately, early Thursday morning — he brought his debut live tour to U Street Music Hall. “I see so many familiar faces. I’m getting emotional,” he told the crowd after his first song. “I’m home right now.”
As Sweater Beats, Cuna makes dreamy, romantic electronic music that is indebted to R&B and hip-hop. Like fellow maximalists Hudson Mohawke and Rustie, Sweater Beats pairs block-rocking beats with intricate synthesizer work heavy with twinkling video-game arpeggios. Turn-of-the-millennial hitmakers Timbaland and the Neptunes loom large in his work, as do the beatmakers of Atlanta trap rap.
As his moniker suggests, Sweater Beats’s music is warm and comforting, especially in a venue such as U Hall, where intimacy is the watchword and bass takes on a visceral quality. While it was brisk and pitch-black outside, it was a night full of warmth, life and youthful energy inside U Hall. The venue was packed with college-age kids who landed on both sides of the X-hand axis, ready to dance and celebrate the holiday a few hours early.
Sweater Beats was alone onstage, in the middle of an ozone cloud and flanked by two fog-cutting lights. His performance was the perfect response to critics who still think electronic music isn’t “real” music — just someone pushing play on a laptop. Although Sweater Beats does fiddle with his MacBook as he brings his digital orchestra to life, he also triggers percussion with a pair of drumsticks and vibes out on his Fender guitar. There have been one-man bands for centuries; in the 21st, they just look cool doing it.
For over an hour, Sweater Beats played his original productions (including the debuts of some that he has yet to release), his remixes of songs by Rihanna and Gallant, and a cover of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” that re-created the 2003 hit as soaring, digital R&B. Towards the end of his set, Sweater Beats brought out D.C.-based vocalist Imad Royal to perform a pair of songs: “Better,” a trap-EDM-pop hybrid by Sweater Beats featuring him; and his own “Bad 4 U,” a buoyant slice of hip-pop.
The latter provided a respite from the template from which Sweater Beats usually works: songs that follow the build-and-release of EDM; climax with glitchy, maximalist eruptions; and break down into slow-motion dance parties. For the youthful audience, it’s a formula as familiar and comforting as their favorite sweater. But in the early hours of Thanksgiving, that familiarity bred ecstasy — not contempt — for both the audience and the performer. “This is my first time playing all of my music” in D.C., he confessed. “I’m baring my soul to you. This is really tight.”