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Mad Alchemy Revives Liquid Light Shows For a New Generation 

Wednesday, May 4 2016
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It's been nearly a half-century since the Summer of Love, and tech has long replaced lengthy guitar solos, acid tests, and flower power as the Bay Area's top pop cultural export. But every so often, you can still catch an authentic flash of that famed counterculture spirit.

In the case of Mad Alchemy, performing at Rickshaw Stop on Saturday night along with rock acts The Chocolate Watchband and The Cosmic Correlation Conspiracy, the flashback will be in the watery blues, reds, yellows, and greens pulsing and bubbling across the faces of the musicians onstage. Mad Alchemy is a small collective of artists crafting improvised "liquid light shows," as popularized in the 1960s, to complement concerts.

"People get a chance to see and feel what the initial '60s light shows were," says Lance Gordon, Mad Alchemy's founder. "It was magic."

The technique used to create liquid light is old-school, relying on a simple combination of alcohol, oils, inks, dyes, glass plates, and the type of overhead projectors similar to those you'd find in an elementary school classroom. As a band performs, Gordon and his team use transparent glass plates to manipulate a colorful mixture of liquids to suit the mood and rhythms of the music. The reactions of the liquids get projected onstage, bathing performers in a constantly changing, improvised psychedelic mural.

No two sets are alike. For instance, when Mad Alchemy performed with San Francisco folk singer Jessica Pratt at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Gordon made sure the visuals had a dreamier, slow-moving feel. In contrast, when he was touring with Swedish hard-rockers Graveyard, he discovered a rapid, pulsating technique that could transform the liquid projections into something resembling a Viking shield.

Mad Alchemy's light shows aren't simple exercises in nostalgia built to accompany Grateful Dead cover bands playing for aging hippies. You'll find the light illuminating both up-and-coming and established acts from a variety of genres, including indie, psych, rock, folk, and metal. Since 2008, Mad Alchemy has beamed its hallucinatory projections on artists ranging from Real Estate to Roky Erickson, Woods to Shannon & the Clams.

San Francisco psych-rock act LSD & the Search for God has performed accompanied by Mad Alchemy light shows at least five times, according to singer and guitarist Andy Liszt. While he usually can't see the full breadth of Mad Alchemy's projections while playing onstage, Liszt has noticed a response from those in the crowd. When paired with music, he says, Mad Alchemy's light shows create a full sensory experience for the audience, pulling people deeper into the moment.

"It's hypnotic," Liszt says. "And there's a lot of love and beauty behind it too."

The 62-year-old Gordon founded Mad Alchemy after the Great Recession wiped out much of the clientele he had built up over 35 years as an architecture photographer. On top of that, the photography industry was going digital at a time when he had become a master of shooting with film.

To adapt, Gordon revived his interest in liquid light show production, a hobby in which he hadn't seriously indulged since his high school days in Danville. In the late '60s and early '70s, you couldn't really go see a concert without there being some liquid light show component, Gordon says. In the Bay Area, light show groups such as Light Sound Dimension and the Brotherhood of Light would perform with local acts including Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

All that changed in the 1970s, as liquid light shows fell out of favor and were replaced by the more standard concert production we're used to now: multicolored stage lights and some sort of backdrop, be it a curtain, screen, or wall. Sure, some artists go above and beyond, but many touring musicians on a budget just rely on whatever a club or theater has to offer. Gordon compares today's stage set-up to that of a boxing match, with a lot of white light on the players so you can see every drip of sweat from their performance. "It's theatrical in one sense," Gordon says, but it's also more challenging to create a mood.

Gordon staged his first liquid light show of the modern era with a friend's band in 2008, but was unsure whether or not it would eventually translate to current musicians and audiences. The 1960s were a long time ago, after all, and there had been plenty of innovations in onstage theatrics — from digital projections to pyrotechnics — to accompany live performances. Plus, Gordon hadn't been keeping up with the latest sounds. "I had really lost touch with the music scene for 20 years," Gordon says. "I wasn't even sure if the light show was going to resonate with anybody."

As time progressed, Mad Alchemy's liquid light shows gained momentum, touring with Iowa psych-act Radio Moscow and performing one-off shows with San Francisco artists like Sleepy Sun. With the help of local concert promoter Folk Yeah, Mad Alchemy light shows were added to more Bay Area live dates. Since 2011, Gordon estimates Mad Alchemy has performed more than 850 gigs, at venues including Public Works in San Francisco, SXSW in Austin, and the London Forum.

Mad Alchemy's light shows have become so popular, Gordon has made it his full-time gig. Currently, there is more demand than he alone can handle, so he's added a small team to assist, which includes second-plate artist Dominic Cota and Tyler Loring, who shoots photos and videos.

One of the reasons Gordon thinks liquid light shows resonate with audiences again is because the acid-infused days of The Fillmore in the 1960s are basically ancient history at this point.

For some, a gig featuring a Mad Alchemy light show is a doorway back into the San Francisco music scene we've only heard about from older generations or witnessed on grainy YouTube videos.

Not that Gordon feels too much nostalgia for those days.

"I loved the '60s," he says. "But I tell you what, I love right now more."

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Kevin W. Smith

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