Grizzly Bear performed at the New York Society for Ethical Culture as part of the Wordless Music Series this past Saturday evening in an attempt to further discredit any semblance of subtlety and restraint I may have once possessed here on EAR FARM. Did they succeed?
Well, to say this is the best show I've been to in a long long long time would be an understatement - and that ain't no hyperbole - so you tell me. This show was phenomenal. So before I break down and write the rest of this in hearts and emoticons, let me back up a bit.
According to its website, "the Wordless Music Series is devoted to the idea that the sound worlds of classical and contemporary music - in genres such as indie rock, free jazz, and electronic music - share more in common than conventional thinking might suggest. To illustrate the continuity between these worlds, this series will pair rock and electronic musicians in an intimate concert setting with more traditionally understood classic and chamber music performers. In so doing, the series will bring together audiences and introduce listeners of both classical and contemporary music to composers that they might otherwise not encounter, for a completely new concert experience."
On this night, the Wordless folks paired composer and pianist Michael Harrison with Grizzly Bear, and Harrison opened the show with a mesmerizing solo set that reminded me of a slightly detuned George Winston, say if Winston had a head cold and drank too much cough syrup before trying to play December. I say detuned because rather than using traditional octaves, Harrison had tuned the grand piano into 12 equally spaced intervals for the performance, enveloping his droning rhythmic cycles and melodies with a reverberating and hauntingly off-key effect (take my word for what it's worth, I did also once say that Yeasayer sounds like Nickelback).
Harrison's unconventionally beautiful compositions segued naturally into Grizzly Bear's sonic world and perfectly set the table for the "indie" portion of the night's entertainment. The Society for Ethical Culture would prove to be the ideal setting for Grizzly Bear's ornate display of delicate harmonies, a venue complete with cathedral ceilings, a converted pulpit for a stage, and even rickety wooden pews for seats. It appeared that we were the congregation, Grizzly Bear was the preacher, and it was time to find religion.
One of the underlying reasons I had never seen Grizzly Bear before this show was out of fear that the lovingly layered harmonies and intricate arrangements on their albums could never translate and be duplicated live by a quartet. Also, the way in which some of Ed Droste's vocals were processed and even buried on parts of Yellow House and most of Horn of Plenty made me assume that he was perhaps hiding some vocal shortcomings.
As Ed pointed out early in the set, this show was an unofficial end of tour celebration of sorts, as the band had been on the road for most of the past year and a half. Usually when this is the case, the performance can go one of two ways. One option is that the band is so drained and sick and tired of playing the same songs that they launch into a sort of auto-pilot self parody (see the Strokes at the end of their "Room on Fire" tour). The preferable option, however, is that the combination of having become so technically in control of one's material coupled with the euphoria of playing a hometown show with the finish line in sight will make for something altogether different and spectacular.
Well, we were obviously dealing with the latter option, and any doubts I may have secretly harbored about Droste's vocals, the arrangements and anything else vanished less than 30 seconds into their opening song, an alternate version of "Alligator" that appears on their new Friend EP (out tomorrow). From this point throughout the entirety of their almost 90-minute set, every headphone-straining nuance of every song popped through the cathedral's sound system with clarity, urgency and confidence, most impressive among these being the band's ethereal vocal harmonies. These guys can sing. Each one of them. They could have put choir robes on and not seemed out of place on that stage with the wall of vocals that burst forth.
Here are some observations, broken down by band member:
Ed Droste - His vocal range was a revelation to me. It's one thing to make a bedroom recording and mask a twee vocal harmony in layers of reverb but to take effortless control of a driving and chugging rhythm section with nothing more than a vulnerably high vocal line (vulnerable maybe only for those with lesser talent) is astounding.
Daniel Rossen - Has instantly taken residence with Malkmus and Deerhoof's John Dieterich as one of my favorite guitar players for his ability to shape and shift entire sonic landscapes with his guitar lines. His vocals almost equally impressed, reminding me of a smoother Jim O'Rourke.
Christopher Taylor - When I went to the Coney Island Freak Show this past summer, I had to pay a dollar to look into a coffin riddled with swords in order to see how the contortionist had twisted her body to avoid being stabbed. Watching Taylor hunched over and furiously commanding a fleet of woodwind instruments with his hands while triggering a collection of patches and effects with his feet before then springing upright and playing bass was actually a more impressive display of body contortion to me. This guy can multi-task.
Christopher Bear - No, not a character from Winnie the Pooh. Bear controlled the whole momentum of the show, alternating tasteful bursts of fills and punctuations with droning bass and floor tom rhythms that felt like cascading thunder. Awesome.
There were honestly no missteps throughout the entire performance and choosing favorites is almost arbitrary, but I suppose personal highlights would include "On A Neck, On A Spit", the medley of "Service Bell" and "Marla", the encores of Paul Simon's "Graceland" and Goffin/King's "He Hit Me" (also on Friend) and the brand new song they unveiled for the first time ever (but didn't provide a name, does anybody know?).
Those of you in NYC should definitely make it out to the Virgin Megastore in Union Square on Wednesday evening for a special in-store performance by the band to promote their new EP. Though the Virgin cafe is no cathedral, it may be your last opportunity to see them live for quite a while. For those not in New York, make sure to tune in to Conan tomorrow evening as they will be the musical guests.
Do I sense a potential "Grizzly Bear Week" on EF? This is what happens when Matt leaves me to run things I suppose...
See Grizzly Bear Live:
7 November - Virgin Megastore Union Square, NYC
"He Hit Me"
Visit Grizzly Bear on MySpace