Beach House drifted into D.C. last week, bringing along an extra drummer and stage props designed to look like an abandoned industrial warehouse, and the 9:30 Club turned into a film noir set for a night. The Baltimore based band is synonymous with dreamscape-ish atmospheric pop, and Wednesday’s show, the final performance of the American leg of their Frightened Eyes tour, showcased the recent work of a group you'd expect to see playing in the background of a bar scene in Blade Runner. Performing songs drawn primarily from this year’s Bloom and 2010’s Teen Dream, Beach House mesmerized the audience, who stood transfixed for most of the evening as songs broke over the densely-packed house like waves next to, uh, a beach house.
Alex Scally walked onto a dark stage and played the opening strain to “Wild” to start the show, joined by touring drummer Daniel Franz on a simple snare line. When Victoria Legrand emerged a few minutes later and took over center stage, the mostly somber crowd reacted with the largest outpouring of emotion of the night, singing along as Legrand growled, and “My mother said to me, that I would get in trouble...” Legrand’s live voice was raw and almost guttural at times, but blended beautifully with the layers of looping vocals running in the background. It’s not a secret that most bands now play loops of prior-recorded material during their live shows, to mimic the way a song is constructed on the album, and electronic-based bands rely on this technique even more - the only glitches were a few occasions where Legrand pulled her face away from the mike to swing her fantastic mane of hair, clearly no longer singing, while the vocals continued on without her. She wasn’t lip-synching, because her mike was louder and more distinct than any of the back-up vocal tracks, but it was still a bit of a disconnect to hear lyrics while visually seeing no mouths moving on stage.
One of the primary critiques of Bloom is that it boils down to Teen Dream, Part Deux, with the band not progressing so much as putting out a companion to the earlier album. But Bloom is actually a much, much more densely layered and intricate effort and while live selections from Bloom were actual note-for-note replica(nt)s of the studio efforts, Beach House managed to lush up the songs from two earlier albums as well. After the stratospheric “Lazuli,” the band played “Astronaut” from 2008’s Devotion and it took on a new level of density with the addition of more organ lines and heightened levels of synthesizer. It actually transformed the earlier song into something that would now fit nicely onto Bloom, if there were space for one more note on that album.
Legrand et al. barely spoke to the audience all night, and she even apologized for not talking more prior to “Astronaut,” but Beach House isn’t really a band you come to see because you’re seeking an emotional connection. The music itself can be distancing, and for this tour the staging scheme was a set of four huge back-lit panels, constructed with slats to create a half-drawn blind effect, with slowly rotating fans breaking up the spotlights behind -- it was kind of claustrophobic given the weight of Beach House’s music, and at times it almost felt as if you were drowning. The addition of twinkly lights across the top of the stage simulating stars did little to lighten the heavy feel of the music and industrial set, but it was a lovely touch.
For the encore, Legrand again emerged after the other two performers, lit from behind with the starry background flashing away, and she looked like a visitor from another planet. After a perfect rendition of “Turtle Island,” the band played “10 Mile Stereo” from Teen Dream, extending the final note with bombastic sound, an explosion of strobe lights, sparkly stars, and every light on stage going off in what felt like it had to be the closer. The crowd cheered, all the lights went off, and everyone took the first lurch toward the exit doors, before we realized the band hadn’t actually left the stage -- and then Beach House really closed the show with a note-perfect “Irene,” the closing track from Bloom. The lyrics repeat “it’s a strange paradise” over and over again - an apt ending to a beautiful, if not a little strange evening of music.