Lasers danced across the sky like holograms, settling on the treetops at the back of the theater, in time to the warm sounds of electronic vibes combating the chilly Bay Area evening as spectators high in the back rows, overcome with euphoria, danced like nobody was watching. And in front of it all, the man on stage made music out of light.
Is this what the future looks like?
It’s the question that kept coming back as French electronic artist Jean-Michel Jarre performed at the Greek Theater on May 26. Jarre stopped in Berkeley for the penultimate stop on the North American leg of his Electronica world tour, his first ever tour in North America, and his first time performing in the United States since the 1980s.
Jarre’s grand return to the continent carried the promise of a veritable spectacle – this was after all, the man who has performed for crowds numbering 3.5 million – a promise Jarre delivered on unequivocally. Playing a combination of cuts from Oxygène (1976–2016), Electronica (2015–2016), and his extensive back catalog, Jarre delivered a once-in-a-lifetime feast for the senses.
When the sun went down and Jarre appeared, it was evident that his production would be unique. From the three-dimensional stage design, to the camera housed in his glasses tracking Jarre’s moves on the keyboard, to the lasers creating wave-like forms suspended in the sky, Jarre turned his tasteful technical expertise to the max. It’s no secret that the scale of Jarre’s production is unmatched by similar artists, and although quantity doesn’t always equal quality, Jarre’s performance was as sprawling as it was impressive.
Of course, with over forty years of his career in the books, Jarre has the advantage of experience. But four decades have yet to dull the excitement and wonder that come from seeing Jarre perform live. Both as a performer and an artist, he has remained at the top of his game and at the cutting edge of electronic music his entire career, constantly adapting his sound and production to current trends in electronic music and recording technology.
In this sense, Jarre’s music can seem paradoxical; it’s simultaneously retro, current, futuristic, and timeless, both familiar and unique. Through headphones or home speakers, Jarre’s music can fade into the background – a soothing ambient backdrop. In person, Jarre’s compositions demand your full attention as he moves seamlessly between understated and sprawling. “Oxygène 17,” a highlight from Jarre’s most recent project performed near the end of his set, transitions from a slow, Angelo Badalamenti-esque intro to a rolling, breezy electronic soundscape. Other tracks like “Oxygène 4,” Jarre’s first encore, build more gradually, collecting more and more layers and tones throughout the track.
More highlights included “Exit,” a collaboration between Jarre and Edward Snowden with a message about privacy in the digital age, “Souvenir of China,” a cut from Jarre’s 1982 performances in the country – the first western artist to do so after the China’s Cultural Revolution – and finale “The Time Machine,” which saw Jarre break out his signature laser harp in the culmination of his exploration of art and technology. Jarre deftly moved his hands across a set of lasers aimed straight at the sky, covering and uncovering the beams to turn light into a full-fledged instrument.
When the lights finally went down and the audience shuffled out of the Greek Theater, the euphoria in the air remained, still palpable. At a time when it seems easiest to imagine an uncertain future and headlines are more often negative than not, Jarre delivered a blissful, optimistic, and warm view of tomorrow.
If Jarre’s future is our future, it will be easy to embrace.
Written by Jordan Aronson