EDM idol Zhu throws misguided rave in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral


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Mar 16, 2023

EDM idol Zhu throws misguided rave in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral is seen from Taylor Street at night in San Francisco on Jan. 20.

Grace Cathedral is seen from Taylor Street at night in San Francisco on Jan. 20. The venue hosted EDM artist Zhu on Thursday night.

A seemingly endless line of Gen Zers snaked around the block surrounding Grace Cathedral last Thursday night, dressed almost entirely in black with looks ranging from mall goth fishnets to leather trenchcoats that looked straight out of the vampire film "Blade." Red smoke emerged from the chapel as drones buzzed past, and the crowd pulsed with anticipation at seeing one of the biggest EDM stars in the world in one of the most sacred spaces in the city.

Grace Cathedral is known for boundary-pushing programming, and it's hosted art installations, live concerts and DJ sets before, but nothing in recent memory as high a profile as this. The evening's performer, Zhu, grew up in San Francisco, but he kept his face and origin hidden for the first few years of his career. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2015 for "Faded," which has nearly 300 million Spotify streams. This 500-capacity show was likely the smallest he's played in years, as he performs predominantly at festivals and stadiums (he opened for Swedish House Mafia at Chase Center last September and headlined Lightning in a Bottle over the weekend).

The event was teased last week via a cryptic series of 10 Instagram slides. "About the album … I can't decide … Is it risky enough? … F*** it … Finishing it in a cathedral recording live … Crazy or genius." Fitting the theme, the lead single is titled "Revelations," which is out now. Zhu's most fervent followers received a text message with an Eventbrite link; anyone who RSVPed got free entry, with canned food donations suggested. The performance was recorded for a concert film intended for the festival circuit, so the instructions were to wear all black and no logos and to be ready to surrender your cellphone at the door. Thousands of fans RSVPed and queued in the cold until the doors opened an hour after schedule, leading to a minor revolt among the many people turned away due to capacity issues (a flood of angry Instagram comments followed about hundreds of people cutting the line).

Inside, the historical church glowed with blood-red light. The morose ambience, combined with the edgy all-black-everything outfits, made the event feel about as far from a religious gathering as possible. Professional cameras crowded the edge of the stage and more drones whizzed overhead as fans waited eagerly in the pews. Minor chords from the massive church organ reverberated through the 93-year-old cathedral as Zhu marched up the aisle shrouded in black robes and dark sunglasses. A woman behind me, who looked to be barely 21 years old, yelled out a flustered "I love you!" as he passed.

The acoustics in Grace Cathedral are both glorious and fickle, and Thursday was a good example of why not to throw an EDM concert behind the church lectern. The structure's natural reverb soaked the opening organ tones beautifully, but Zhu's brand of glossy EDM turned to a cacophonous mess, sounding like dungeon techno played through the broken stereo of a 1993 Toyota Camry. The Weeknd-style soaring pop hooks were drowned out, his lyrics and between-song banter indecipherable.

Regardless, the crowd seemed thrilled to be a part of an exclusive event. Strobe lights flashed as fans stood on top of pews — cushions be damned — but there really wasn't much to see. Zhu and his cohorts spent most of the hour bobbing their cloaked heads, but it was almost impossible to see if you weren't in the front row. A saxophone player and a guitar player made cameos on a couple of songs, but it was largely a press-play situation, with Zhu singing on top of backing tracks, prerecorded vocals largely intact. Zhu's representatives confirmed that he was recording at the church on the two days leading up to the event but couldn't say whether any of this set would be used for the album (maybe it was indeed too risky).

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As the "live" album listening party concluded, Zhu marched back down the aisle to an elevated DJ booth in the center of the church's labyrinth. A dance floor erupted in 360 degrees around him, and the sound quality greatly improved — proof that you can indeed throw a proper dance party at Grace if you choose the right spot.

The appeal of a show like this, aside from the exclusivity, is the contrast between setting and performer. Although many people have had religious experiences in dance clubs, this felt more like an incongruent spectacle. Only water was allowed inside, but vape smoke hovered overhead, and at least one attendee seemed to sneak in something stronger, as evidenced by vomit in the church bathroom. Fittingly, Zhu closed the DJ set with his Grammy-nominated song "Faded," a stomping party track that literally repeats the lyric "Baby, I’m wasted" six times.

The term idol gets thrown around a lot in pop music lately, but it took on a new signification as dancing fans surrounded Zhu from all sides, staring with rapt awe under red light, screaming in adoration whenever the robed DJ waved his arms. On the mic, he kept cryptically repeating the phrase "24 Hours of Grace," perhaps a hint at the title of his concert film or album, but the phrase seemed more like an ask for forgiveness if you weren't a member of his flock.

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