Grizzly Bear: Subterranean, 2-9-07

Mon Feb 26 2007

We hadn’t anticipated the sub-zero wind chill when we decided we would brave the Subterranean surroundings on the hope that we could still procure tickets to the sold-out Grizzly Bear show. We’d gotten lucky on an upstanding Craigslist poster and, after jumping through a few hoops with the ticket print-out, we found ourselves two tickets shy for our four-person entourage. Nevertheless, only the true believers were sturdy enough to brave the bone-chilling wasteland of Wicker Park, and we all made it inside; even these smoke-clogged confines had to be better than the naked Windy City at its least merciful.

Openers Mittens On Strings greeted us as we thawed out with a groove that was VU but not quite as weird. The highlight was a pinpoint smartass monotone “of all the kids will love me” followed by a Stephen Malkmus-style freakout that lifted the performance just beyond ordinary. The Dirty Projectors hit the stage and were instantly overpowered by the room’s bass-worshipping system; their intricate harmonies were often drowned out by the lightest strum of the bass guitar, through no fault of their own. It was difficult to appreciate the eerie perfection of vocalists Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian amidst the unintentional pounding rave beats, and frontman Dave Longstreth’s Elvis Costello thang is occasionally too much to bear, but its just creative enough not to be horrible. In a room more suited to delicate acoustics, this band can truly impress, but this wasn’t its night.

Grizzly Bear opened with the ethereal “Easier.” The bass was compensated for by an overall so-this-is-the-headliner amplification, and we were promptly sunk into the cascading presence of sound that seemed to flit in and out of true sensory awareness all night. Leader Edward Droste’s voice became a beacon, sounding clearer and more impassioned than on any of his recorded output, steering the band through the thick morass and beckoning the audience into belief. Soon the lilting harpsichord of “Lullabye” gave way to propulsive percussion worthy of Isis, the heavy bass mating with the meditative intensity of the guitars. The band then dove into “Knife” like the Beach Boys on a heroin-induced psychobilly backbeat, truly evolved from its studio incarnation; a crazed tropical safari that got lost in the jungle for a bit before returning to the warm sands…drummer Christopher Bear was a revelation, in the midst of real creation, engrossing without being distracting.

Launched from an album (Yellow House) not six months old, it was fascinating how much the newer songs had developed and matured through performance. “Little Brother” was a magnificent reinvention, a spacey-swamp, Sun-Studios reimagining that built to a shrill, clanging climax, devoid of feedback but abrasive, only enough to contrast the soothing denouement. “Colorado” built to a post-emo surge, the beat crashing, bass slowly insistent; the crescendo shed its spooky sleepiness and arrived a triumph, a song reconsidered, only now fully realized. The Crystals cover “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” delivered the spooky; it felt like it was on the verge of a math-punk breakdown, but held the tension like a silent threat until giving way to “Fix It,” so much richer and vibrant than its skeletal Horn Of Plenty origin. Finally, closing the show was the song that really got the hype machine rolling for this band, “On A Neck, On A Spit.” It made me wonder if the experience would be more thrilling having never heard the song before, or if the anticipation amped up the energy and yielded more satisfaction. Either way, the room was rapturous as the song was played to perfection, channeling the Moody Blues in their most dreamlike state, reawakening with cries of just-realized freedom, then quietly pondering that isolation. Even though we wanted more, it couldn’t have ended any better.

Its somewhat frightening to analyze a performance by such a green band and find nothing to pick apart. Motivational success stories about diligence and years upon years of rehearsal and touring make Grizzly Bear’s rapid transition from one-man band to fully-functional ensemble seem almost unfair. In its first year as a touring band, the Bronx quartet already projects a remarkable synergy and evolutionary aptitude, opening up worlds of possibility for these musicians’ future. Catch them while you can, because you can only hope this spark doesn’t burn out before it has a chance to fade away.

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