I’ve seen a fair amount of live music. Back when I lived in New Zealand I’d often drive two and a half hours north from Rotorua to Auckland mid-week to see a show, then back in the early hours of the morning to get to work. This possibly happened more weeks than it didn’t. From 2007-2012 or so, I attended a metric fuckton of gigs (which sadly did not include the band Metric). They varied in quality, as all things do. Some (like Grizzly Bear at Bruce Mason or The Mountain Goats at King’s Arms Tavern) left me with an exultant high while others were a flat out disappointment (TV on the Radio at Big Day Out comes to mind). The middle ground was composed of gigs that fluctuated between the marvellous and mediocre (Smashing Pumpkins at Vector Stadium) or those that weren’t bad so to speak, but different from what I’d been expecting/hoping for (Weezer at Vector Arena. Forgot how not into their newer material I was).
Then there was last night’s Animal Collective concert at The Danforth Music Hall.
I’ve been a huge fan of AC for years. In particular, Feels, Strawberry Jam and Merriweather Post Pavillion have been on constant rotation since they were released. I saw them live back at the Powerstation in the wake of their Fall Be Kind EP release. It was a sweet spot for the band. They’d crested the wave of critical adoration and brought out a similarly cherished bonus release. They sounded excellent and played a bunch of Merriweather stuff. Solid show that left me with a humming feeling in the core of my being. The kind of concert you dream of.
Last night’s gig was a mixed bag and I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it. I’ve been less than lukewarm on the band’s recent releases. They’ve felt fine for any other band, but lacking in that special harmony that seemed to epitomise their late 00s releases. The bulk of their material was from their 2016 album Painting With and the subsequent EP The Painters. They had a few Merriweather tracks plus a scattering of deep cuts and lesser known songs. As I said earlier, I’d consider myself a fan of the band, but I came away feeling sort of isolated.
On the other hand, they weren’t remotely phoning it in. Seeing them compose these hugely ambitious audio soundscapes was fascinating. The craft involved in shaping noise through a critical mass of effects pedals and gadgets boggled my mind. To conceive of sound in that way, taking a couple of notes, stretching and mixing in order to warp into a whole new atmosphere really took a shit ton of skill. A lot of it felt improvisational in nature and the chemistry of the band went a long way towards making the sound gel. It seemed in a sense like an electronic jam session, with band members bouncing off one another organically. That was pretty powerful to watch, seeing such a fluid working relationships (knowing full well of the band’s constant creative tensions). So much of the set seemed like they were out to challenge the audience, both in what they sought from a gig and how they perceived previously known pieces. Even when familiar tunes faded in, the tracks were entirely rearranged, taking aspects of the beloved material to recreate a starkly different piece. It made me begin to question the nature of what makes a song. How far can you go from a recorded piece, cherry picking elements to rework while still maintaining that it’s the same track? If it only casually resembles the former structure, what have you just heard? Experiencing songs I knew so well in a whole different light literally inspired awe in me. It recontextualised the piece entirely, crafting a meaningful memory of its own.
There’s been a lot of personal ownership so far. Defining this concert by how “I” felt. Looking around though, it was plain to see that the gig wasn’t what everyone had bargained for. Witnessing the almost desperate response to familiar material- feverishly energetic dancing, as if re-engaging calcified joints- I can’t have been the only one expecting a more crowd friendly set. I get it from the band’s perspective. Maybe they don’t like touring that much, but see it as a financial necessity. Perhaps they feel constrained by the rigid structures of their recorded material. They could even see delivering a polished, tight setlist as a method of giving up and phoning it in. Does a band owe anything to its audience? Is it fair for concertgoers to have expectations of what they’d hope to hear and, if those aren’t met, are they justified in feeling disappointed? Is it entitled to presume that the cost of a concert ticket implies walking away satisfied? Or is that a gamble inherent to the mercurial nature of a creative endeavour?
At what level can it be seen as self-indulgent to fly in the face of what your crowd seeks? There was a specific instance during a fantastic rendition of “Floridada” where Avery Tare seemed borderline antagonistic. Everything was humming away merrily, until he begun singing his part of the chorus in half-time, throwing off the rhythm of the track. It was in defiance of the rest of the band’s timing. How’s an audience meant to dance to that? Is a concert a performance or performance art? Something put out there to be critiqued, experienced or enjoyed? There’s no clear cut line, but it really begs the question: Who are you touring for? Yourself or adoring fans who’ve supported your career for years?
At this stage, I still have yet to determine how I really felt about the gig. Was that the point? We live in a world of nuance where it’s possible to hold a number of opposing views simultaneously. By the same metric, the next time Animal Collective roll through town I can’t say whether or not I’d want to go. This wasn’t a gig I’ll soon forget.