Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dirty Projectors

with tUnE-YaRdS

November 13th, 2009 at The Bottom Lounge
Chicago, IL

The Bottom Lounge, a lesser cousin to Chicago's more seasoned big-indie clubs like Metro and Empty Bottle, scored quite a coup by landing Dirty Projector's only Chicago stop on their tour for the already-guilded Album of the Year sureshot Bitte Orca (excepting their free set at Millennium Park earlier this Summer.)

When the show finally kicked off, a full hour later than the posted time of 9 pm (an annoyingly obvious attempt by the Lounge to cash in on this larger-than-usual Friday night audience and sell a few extra beers,) lone opener tUnE-YaRdS (her character inflection, not mine) took the stage with a bass player accompanist. The brainchild of front-woman Merrill Garbus, she quickly endeared herself to the crowd, donning an over-sized ukelele and flanked by a floor tom and snare drum. With so many artists now fulfilling the promise of looping equipment, it takes something interesting to stand out from the pack, and Garbus' caffeinated wizardry did not disappoint. Something like Paul Simon by way of the Fugees, by way of the Lion King soundtrack, she alternated brassy, sing-songy vocal blasts with diva-inflected, belting punctuations, navigating a microphone from drum to mouth, building layered loops of rhythm and vocal harmony on top of each other, and then harmonizing back over the top live. A great mood setter, tUnE-YaRdS was soulful, playful and joyful. All the "'fuls." Full, in fact. Just very.. full.

Then came Dirty Projectors. Dave Longstreth's band has built itself quickly into one of indie's "biggest things," due in no small part to this year's Bitte Orca, a record which, for me at least, has already burrowed itself so deeply into the pantheon of the great rock documents of the millennium that their previous record, Rise Above, which had formerly been regarded as DP's breakout record (and which remains quite a formidable achievement in its own right) somehow now feels light years away. Indeed, the band's set list drew only minimally from that record, as the majority of the night was spent devoted to Bitte Orca and its accompanying, newer odds and ends.

I had seen flashes of the Projectors' greatness earlier this year at their aforementioned Millennium Park performance this Summer. However, much as I love that venue and the opportunities for free music it has provided in Chicago, it generally does a disservice to rock bands, forcing many a non-festival/non-stadium style band to project themselves out hundreds of feet to an audience they are used to having just an arms-length away. The Bottom Lounge is no sardine can; they can easily accommodate Empty Bottle-sized crowds, but the change of venue predictably enhanced the effect of the show, which was similar in many ways (albeit longer) to the set they had played at Millennium. Longstreth first took the stage solo to perform a new song. Then the band joined him (Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman, Longstreth's go-to featured accompanists, as well as recent vocalist addition Haley Dekle, and bass and drums.) From there on out, it was night and day, and the Dirty Projectors lived up to their hype with commanding authority.

Having already been crowned the undisputed heirs-apparent to the Talking Heads, the comparison has further cemented itself by virtue of the blessing of David Byrne, who invited the band to play at his curated stage at Bonnaroo, and even collaborated with them on their recent standout addition to this year's all-star Dark was the Night compilation. True enough, Dirty Projectors don't seem too interested in dispelling the idea (why should they be?) If anything, they seem to have taken it as a call to arms. The vocal acrobatics displayed by Deradoorian and Coffman (and now Dekle) are without precedent; on "Remade Horizon," they hoot back and forth at each other like cartoon owls, with such flair and precision that I find myself awestruck when they don't hyperventilate (or at least launch into a debilitating paralysis of hiccups.) Handed down by Longstreth, these vocals could be considered downright sadistic if he didn't subject himself to the equally high-flying guitar riffs that he does. The combination of these elements, as well as the suitably bombastic drumming, gel into a spectacular cohesion of enmeshed textures and rhythmic flavors. For all their on paper noodly-ness, Dirty Projectors end product is funky, fast and powerful, and rock music through and through. Not unlike, yes.. the Heads. Though the set featured mostly straight-up interpretations of Bitte Orca's songs, an acoustic reworking of "The Bride," complete with Bull Fiddle bass, provided a tantalizing glimpse of waters the band has not yet tread. Something tells me Longstreth will never long be at a loss for ideas.

Dirty Projectors 2009 is a band at the heart of their soon to be legendary powers. They get all the intangibles right; an easy peg that actually holds water ("the new Heads,") a sprawling, co-ed lineup, and most of all Longstreth out in front; head bobbing like the world's tallest pigeon, pulling the strings and hitting all the right notes. And, if they keep writing songs like "Stillness is the Move," they could easily be racking up the crossover hits in no time (it's almost a wonder the song hasn't already garnered more mainstream play; perhaps a deliberate choice by Domino Records?) It's worth saying a prayer that nothing unforeseen derails this band on their way to further greatness (I may be way off base, but Deradoorian particularly seemed almost depressed throughout the entire show; hopefully just an off night, or the residual effects of the touring life.) Otherwise, I look forward with great anticipation to the music Dirty Projectors have in store for us. There's no guarantee that Longstreth will have the staying power of David Byrne, but as his protege, he has certainly proven that he has the potential.

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