At some point in music slang history, the word “show” became a synonym for rock concert. But that word, show, implies a sort of elaborate, pre-planned event (laser light show or air show, for example). So would an air show be worth attending if it only involved airmen ably piloting their jets in straight, unwavering lines and undramatically descending into a textbook landing? Probably not. Probably, you’d be bored as hell.
Yet, we go to rock concerts all the time, casually calling them “shows,” in the face of lackluster performances from rigid musicians sporting indifferent glares on their puss. Where’s the showmanship? Where’s the thought, the passion, the planning, that elevates what you’re watching from four grungy dudes playing instruments to an actual show?
A Dan Deacon show, on the other hand, is a show. This man gets it. Whether it’s multifaceted crowd-participation games or jettisoning the stage in favor of performing among the fans, the (sometimes) one-man band has a reputation for getting everyone involved. On this night at Beauty Ballroom, Deacon was backed by his ensemble (two drummers and a keyboardist) as he tours the nation in support of his latest album, America. Even the most jaded concertgoer could be charmed by the ambition Deacon brought to this tour, both in his own set and with his choice of opening acts.
Resnick wants you to outlive your friends and family
The night began with a playfully subversive piece of performance art by visual artist Alan Resnick, in which he played the part of a giddy informercial pitchman looking to sell us his invention, the personal avatar, in a presentation titled, “Outlive Your Family and Friends.” The gist is that with 3D imaging and digital archiving, we can create virtual clones of ourselves that will live forever.
Resnick brought to the role the creepy enthusiasm, charismatic charm and delusions of grandeur you might expect from an immortality salesman. An elaborate, jargon-laden slideshow allowed for plenty of punchlines along the way, but the biggest was the communication failures between Resnick and his avatar, when the virtual clone lacked the ability to understand nuance and dry humor. Judging by the roaring laughter, it was clear most in the audience got the joke. But whoever was throwing ice cubes at Resnick (and missing) either didn’t get the joke or wasn’t impressed.
Next up, solo indie-rocker Chester Endersby Gwazda battled through technical difficulties, including a possibly ungrounded power cord resulting in microphone shocks to the face during sound check. Accompanied by drummer Joel Herring and a pre-recorded backing track of synth sounds and electronic beats, Gwazda ably powered through a quick set of uptempo yet emotive guitar rock. It was a sound that borrowed from Death Cab For Cutie and Animal Collective, but far more stripped-down, due to being a two-and-a-half-man band.
The energy reaches a new Height
In a total change of vibe—yet, oddly enough, not a total change of band personnel—Height With Friends arrived with a raucus party energy that got the crowd shouting and waving their hands. Next to the previous acts, this felt like the most logical opener on a Dan Deacon-headlined bill. Solo rapper Height brought along some amigos, including a guitarist, a drummer and a hype man (Herring, who’d just finished drumming for Gwazda). The raps were odd, admittedly. Songs about being unable to stop eating sugar, for instance. But the group’s energy level elevated the crowd, and Height’s friends seemed as excited as anyone to be there. Herring, as hype man, seemed to be mugging and B-boy stancing for a TV camera that wasn’t there, while the guitarist flailed wildly while strumming bluesy chords.
Technical difficulties were an issue for this set, like the previous, though this time it involved the group’s on-stage lighting rig. After literally being left in the dark, Height masterfully handled the situation and busted out an a capella rap.
It was an appropriate bill for Deacon, having a humorous visual artist, a pop-minded indie-rocker and a rowdy no-frills party MC as his openers. All of those elements encapsulate what Deacon is about as a live performer.
The Deacon anoints the party
With the crowd adequately amped up, Deacon and crew walked on stage to loud cheers, but more technical difficulties made for an awkward opening to the set. It turned out the effects pedal that makes Deacon’s voice sound like a chipmunk in a spacesuit wasn’t working. After plugging and unplugging a few cords, Deacon and his ensemble launched the party into orbit and never looked back.
The music was louder, faster and more intense than what Deacon’s recorded material hints at. Hands were raised; beers were spilled. There was an attempted crowd surf here and there. The electric energy in the room was undeniable. Having two live drummers backing Deacon’s uptempo space-rock-electro jams was glorious, as both drummers brought a punk-rock style. Deacon himself played with noise and voice manipulation in a way that complimented the songs, never distracting from them. All this while an onslaught of trippy projections blazed across the wall behind the ensemble.
But it was what happened in between songs that made this raucous show a unique experience. For each song, Deacon had some planned crowd participation. The first was a dance competition in which the crowd formed an empty circle and let two or three dancers go to town. Another involved the two halves of the room pitted against each other in a call-and-response dance-off. Some of the more complicated crowd-participation routines lasted admirably long, like having fans hold hands above their heads to form a human hallway in which every one in the building was expected to walk through. Half the crowd participated before the whole thing devolved back into a sweaty and chaotic dance party (the music was just too good). The man even has an app that turns every smart phone in the room into a synchronized light show.
That’s how you put on a show. I’m not saying every band has to bring a smart phone app and choreographed fan routines to be considered a worthwhile concert experience. But all the schtick stripped away, if your band can bring it half as hard as Deacon and his band did on just a musical level, you’re on the right track.