It would be hard to overstate Deerhoof‘s accomplishments during their ten-plus year run. The numbers alone are exceptional: nine albums, two EPs, countless singles, collaborations, and two tribute albums. What puts them in such a rare category, however, is the music they have churned out with such apparent ease.
Virtually no band since Sonic Youth has so mastered the art of pairing experimentalism with pop craft, heady ideas with visceral rock and roll. What other art rock, nerd rock or whatever rock bands like Dirty Projectors seem to stay up all night with their manifestos to accomplish is just another romp in the studio for Deerhoof.
Friday’s sold-out Great American show marked the second night of their eight-month world tour in support of the aforementioned ninth album, Deerhoof Vs. Evil. As with each of their past four albums, Evil sees the band angling ever slightly more towards accessibility, without giving up the natural sense of exploration and testing that has formed the common thread of their work. It is also the second album (after 2008’s Offend Maggie) with the band’s latest second guitarist, Ed Rodriguez.
When Deerhoof opened for Yoko Ono a year ago, Rodriguez’s contribution (as on Maggie) was fresh and intriguing, but not wholly integrated into the group’s sound and composition process. On Evil, Rodriguez is both more blended and more of a principal contributor, resulting in one of the band’s most polished and entertaining, yet also most creative records.
Original openers Nervous Cop bowed out for unexplained reasons.
[Ed. note: Zach Hill broke his foot, pulling Nervous Cop off Deerhoof’s nationwide tour.] Fate smile warmly upon the very mixed age crowd – from freshly-minted high school hipoisie to silver-bearded electronic music professors – when art rock godfather Fred Frith stepped in, along with saxophone collaborator Phillip Greenlief. Using an e-bow and an array of vintage delay and effects, Frith and Greenlief built up a formidable drone, which around minute seven became beautifully melodic. They kept up an uninterrupted aural collage throughout their 35-minute set, with Frith using everything from a hair brush to the tuning pegs as soloing elements.
It gave pause to be treated to such an inspired set by a musician who straddles the modal noise of 60’s greats like Terry Riley, the seminal 70’s art bands up through Sonic Youth, right up through the headliners themselves. His music seemed to encompass the ideas and styles of all of these movements with the spontaneous ease of a great blues guitarist. “Where’s Deerhunter?” one particularly comely concertgoer was overheard to utter.
“Feel free to, like, move your bodies, cuz this is dance music” – this was how Ben Bulter and Mousepad (Joe Howe, his Macbook, and drummer Bastian Hagedorn) introduced their set. Now I’m kind of old-fashioned, but anyone who sets up a table and a laptop instead of musical instruments has got a lot to prove to me. So if you have to tell people to dance. . . . Well let’s say he faced an uphill climb.
How did he rate? 1. Excellent drummer. A maniac, but light and jazzy, too, playing very similar to Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier and on the same kit. 2. The keyboards and samples were not bad – sort of a J-pop, video game retread of Parliament and Prince. I’ve heard programmed music whose heart was definitely in a worse place, but it was only intriguing to a point. 3. In fairness, I should say the audience was won over and actually did dance somewhat by the second half of the set. But I just have to say again – what a great drummer.
It was a fascinating pair of support acts – almost like someone had put Deerhoof in a broken transporter and bifurcated them into their polarized halves.
One of the many endearing details about Deerhoof: they still carry the trappings of a garage band. Saunier plays on a modest kit, and the others brings one vintage guitar each. They also switch off, with Rodriguez on bass for some numbers. They reproduced Vs. Evil without the use of additional keyboards, making me wonder how much of the album sounds were played on guitar in the first place.
After warming up with a few older songs (including a driving rendition of “Tears of Music and Love” from Maggie), the quartet delivered almost the entirety of the new album. The mastery of their instruments and the manipulation of soft/hard, light/heavy dynamics have reached thrilling levels. Saunier, in particular, is a marvel. He attacks the rhythm of the song as an adversary, threatening to drive the whole thing off the rails. But he always pulls it back together at just the right moments, and on some songs, such as “I Did Crimes for You,” his ability to swing a deft, jazzy touch seems like a different musician altogether.
Live, as on record, Deerhoof’s real genius is their playfulness and joy. They are the least self-conscious art band, and the music makes an organic sense on its own. They are afraid neither of sounding conventional nor unconventional, often in the space of one verse or chorus, and this of course makes them totally unique and convincing, while at once orderly and unindulgent. This has a lot to do with the goofy yet businesslike style of bassist/singer Satomi Matsuzaki, who throws Yoko Ono and Cibo Matto’s mantle over her shoulder without seeming to give it a second thought. Even Saunier’s patented stage banter was brimming with humor and goodwill.