“He’s like Kanye West, but on steroids, bro.”
I overheard a guy saying this to his concert-mate on the way into Sunday night’s KeyBank Center stop on Travis Scott’s long-running “Astroworld” tour. I ruminated on his words as I waited – and waited – for Scott to take the stage.
When he went on around 9:15 p.m., it hit me rather quickly that the guy’s short, pithy description had been pretty much on the money. West’s dark, twisted narcissistic exegeses laid the template for the “welcome to my personal nightmare” style of modern hip-hop concert performances. Scott took that template, dipped it in day-glo paint, dumbed down the lyrics, added consistent trap beats, and hit the mainstream, hard.
That mainstream responded by making him one of the most successful hip-hop artists of the past few years, and members of that group filled KeyBank Center to welcome Scott as he circled back around to make up the date he canceled on Feb. 28 due to illness.
The median age for the KeyBank Center crowd appeared to be around 20, with most of those in attendance hovering around high school age. And man, they were all in, as Scott welcomed them to his trippy, auto-tuned world of blazing butterflies on massive video screens, vertigo-inducing carnival rides, and short, sharp and shocking 60- to-90 second blasts from his catalog, one segueing into the next, mostly without pause.
Much of the set was drawn from Scott’s third album, “Astroworld,” which re-imagines the long-gone Six Flags amusement park in Houston, where Scott grew up, as a psychedelicized, through-the-looking-glass wonder-world. This made for stunning visuals, as Scott employed stages at either end of the arena, pyrotechnics emphasizing the fourth beat of his ceaseless trap grooves as he hopped around and waved his arms in time like a mad carnival barker with a penchant for heavily processed vocals. The entire floor of the arena hopped in time with him. (At times, I swore I could feel the building moving beneath the weight of some 15,000 overpriced basketball sneakers.)
Opening with a slamming “Stargazing,” a circular roller coaster track behind him hovering ominously, Scott arrived full of an energy that would not abandon him for the next 80 minutes. Across the arena above the opposite stage, a massive video screen strobe-flashed disconnected images and slogans, its expanse beckoning like some sort of portal into a peyote-soaked fluorescent hell.
All of this was overwhelming, and therefore cool, for about 15 minutes. Then it started to become a bit confusing, as if it was some sort of random thematic structure thrust upon the proceedings for no apparent organic reason. A shtick, in other words.
The visuals stopped making much sense right around the time that Scott’s ceaselessly rhythmic bursts began to be fatigue-inducing, at least to my ear. This might have been avoided if Scott was employing a live band, some serious players who might have lent some organic grit and improvisational muscle to the proceedings. But he had no band, instead relying on his DJ to provide tracks and interjections. This made the musical side of the adventure a bit sterile.
No one seemed to mind, though, particularly in the general admission area on the floor between the two stages that Scott traversed via a rollercoaster car. The high-energy exchange between Scott and his fans never waned as he ran through his set – “Carousel,” “Butterfly Effect,” “Mamacita,” “Skyfall,” “No Bystanders,” “R.I.P. Screw,” “Houstonfornication,” and naturally, a set-closing “Sicko Mode” were the highlights – like a man on a psychedelic-trap mission.
It was all at turns electrifying and confusing, thrilling and boring, dynamic and overly strident. Scott’s goal seemed to be filling his own imaginary Six Flags theme park with a bunch of his greatest admirers and closest friends, then spiking the punch and indulging in the ensuing mayhem. If so, well - mission accomplished.
March 10 at KeyBank Center