Last Sunday night, Merriweather Post Pavillion pumped out a triple bill that may have caused as much head scratching as it did head bobbing (which, trust us, is a whole hell of a lot). And while we ourselves are not quite sure what to make of this curious trifecta reassembled from a previous tour, We Were There, Man, and here’s what we Do know:
For starters, James Murphy, of the now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, does what he wants. Which apparently includes turning down early Seinfeld writing gigs to found, front, and ultimately bow out of one of the most beloved indie dance bands while still at the top of their game, choosing not to leave the limelight altogether, but to instead go back to spinning records. And yes, he can do that, because he’s James f@$king Murphy, and his smarts, taste, talent, and Rolodex seemingly know no bounds. Well, some bounds, perhaps: While God may be a DJ, Murphy is, alas, still a mere mortal. Crates of vinyl, always a welcomed sight for those who know EDM is nothing new, also come with a flip (read: B) side: Those oldschool heads know a bad mix when they hear one, and might well call you on being more house party than pavilion; stellar music knowledge, connections, and bandroom boredom alone do not a concert-caliber DJ make. Thankfully, Murphy’s second set went much more smoothly than the first, and even if it hadn’t, the truth is, nobody really cared. Still, too good for trainwrecks, uneven levels, and awkward silences, we’ll have to bust out our James Murphy : DJing :: Michael Jordan : Baseball analogy on sheer principle. Sorry, James. Keep being groovy.
As the crowd filled the venue, properly primed for the next two acts, TOTAL SLEIGH BELLS NOISESPLOSION DEVOID OF ANY AND ALL SUBTLETY GO BOOOOOM!!!!!!! In what felt like the Hunger Games Opening Ceremony, lyrics were hardly decipherable over the subtext shouting “Welcome to our post-apocalyptic raaaage!” – a fair and zeitgeisty message from the band whose latest release is fittingly dubbed Reign of Terror. Indeed, the reveling minions of The Capitol (or as frontwoman Alexis Krauss put it, “DC, Baltimore, and wherever the fuck else”) were feeling her dark and twisty, as she sold the sex/hell out of her fist-pumping, boot-kicking, singsong-screamalong fishnets-and-leather performance. Guitarist and co-founder Derek Miller, with touring guitarist Jason Boyer, manned the Shreddy Guitar Noise Department, standing before (and possibly even playing through parts of) a wall of Marshall full-stacks that, despite appearances, doesn’t come close to dominating their overall sound. And while the staggering strobes and rib-shaking fits of machine bass are hard to convey in words or even stills, our cheerleaders-on-steroids’ AV assault handily trampled the seizure bar set by the best raves the ‘90s ever saw.
For many (read: grownups), however, the words “band” and “played” are used far too fast and loosely here. This beloved Get Off Our Lawn contingent’s Milli-Vanilli-dar readings were registering off the charts, and for good reason, leaving them to wonder whether (and why) Sleigh Bells’ live show is considered more indie rock performance than garish pop spectacle. Have they somehow amassed such unflappable cred – perhaps through catchy songwriting, a rebel aesthetic, the badge of Brooklyn hip, and/or a certain youth and newness – that a mere lack of highly choreographed dancers can suffice as DIY? Or are they well on their way, and did we all just share in a moment, along their inevitable Future-of-Pop trajectory? However thick the smoke and shiny the mirrors, the bulk of this highly polished grit was made beforehand, off-stage, and pumped through Merriweather’s very capable PA with little to no live beat manipulation, and without so much as even one visible laptop geek who may as well be checking email but, as an integrated part of a live show, at least signifies some real-time tweaking of All The Digital Things.
(On that note: Dear electro-nerds: Could you please project onto the big screen whatever it is you’re doing behind that glowing fruit emblem, so that the rest of us might watch your wizardry and be equally entertained? Consider it the fretboard of the future; inquiring minds want to know.)
Real-time tweaking of the digital things brings us, at long last and rather late in the night, to the headliners, Hot Chip, who are as skilled and hands-on a live electro-pop band as one might find. To recreate their artful tunes in concert, it took seven guys, savvily switching up, often mid-song, across bass, guitar, percussions, mics and so many keyboards. They matter-of-factly whip out four-part vocal harmonies while playing and manipulating an array of analog synths, stringed instruments, and acoustic beats from dual drum kits, steels, tambourines, and who knows what else. It’s quite hard to keep up, frankly, as at this point in their career, these guys are total pros, having perfected both the nerdy art of computer music along with their telltale tender songwriting touch. That the thoroughly desensitized crowd was still feeling it, on their feet and dancing as soft-voiced Kip-Dynamite-esque frontman Alexis Taylor and his bookish British brethren belted out some of the best of their five-album library, is a testament to Hot Chip’s chops. They played gems and live favorites from each album, including several from their latest In Our Heads – complete with a surprising and perfectly executed blend of “Ready for the Floor” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere.” Unfortunately, their set was cut short without even an opportunity for an encore or proper goodbye.
After the Sleigh Bells jackhammer, the subtle groove and beauty of Hot Chip’s songs felt a bit lost and out of place (or maybe it was just late, and have I mentioned we’re old and get off our lawn?). It may be hard to feel much of anything after the war. But the idea of a brave new world in which a quieter, less showy Hot Chip must play first so as to be truly seen and heard should remain relegated to the realm of paranoid fiction rather than manifested as dystopian hyperreality. While the fate of civilization itself may not depend on it, the fate of live music might.