Noise Pop Show Review: Dan Deacon with Altars, Oona and Ed Schrader’s Music Beat at The Independent, 2/22/2011

by Perry F. Shirley on February 24, 2011

They're outside, but they're at the show. Confused? Read on.

At least for a couple hours, it’s Dan Deacon’s show and we just live in it. You know it right from the beginning; from before the show even, considering his reputation. The acts before him were pretty straightforward players (save for Ed Schrader’s Music Beat but more on that soon) but Deacon breaks it from the get-go: starts a piece that gets the crowd all riled up, plays just a few seconds and then abruptly stops “Okay that works,” he says. What a tease.

Much has been made of his spoken word video “Drinking Out of Cups” and, in fact, Deacon’s wit is admittedly as sharp as any freestyler’s in that he’s got the switch that enables you to make off-the-cuff connections. “San Francisco adults,” he said, “So you’re all 21 here. Old enough to be incarcerated for the longest period of time.”

When people talk about him, they say “see Dan live” and now I know why. The bands playing before him often gave us visual clues as to what to do, but it stopped at clapping in unison or some arm swaying. During an early song, Deacon had us lift our left arm, and then tense up our hand into a fist, shaking it with tension as the music rises, then put one finger up and get down on one knee. “If you can’t, it’s okay but those who can should point your finger at them.” And so on. And, yeah, that’s a lot more fun than clapping.

Deacon eschews the stage entirely and prefers to be surrounded by and exposed to the crowd. It’s just him and a table of electronic gear full of wires, knobs and little keyboards. There’s a contraption of lights and a plastic skull that emits all kinds of colors and clues. And he forces you go along with the new order of things. You could be in the way back and he finds a ways to bring you to the front, rearranging everyone into a large circle at the center, with the inner rows taking a knee. That’s cool because you don’t feel like there’s incremental degrees of concert-enjoyment with a rapid drop-off after the first few rows (who are fiercely protecting their spots).

Trying to describe the music is futile. The Future Wave label works because he’s so avant-garde in that savant way mostly only true music fans can appreciate. Or cope with, since the tracks border on a atonal at time but schizo too: Deacon swaying from his false crooner singing to rapid sing-talk lyricism to a computer-aided squeaky delivery. So Freak-pop might be a better descriptor.

My own introduction to Dan Deacon was entirely second-hand, coming in fractured bits and pieces. During a visit to my father’s, I go to his office and he’s watching a TV performance of “Ohio” and it’s making my step-mother wince (a good sign). My music producer brother swore this was the best thing around and we’re trying to get it, behind the squelches, rapid fire beats and frenetic yelping in the video. Among the tags are the words “spaz” and “weirdo” so it’s not just me.

Most artists you find out about, you check out the recordings maybe find some interviews and write-ups to get an idea of personality but then you compare it with the live footage you can scrounge up on YouTube. That’ll tell you whether the sound is the artist’s or their label’s, if it’s all studio magic or if it translates, if they’re out to make a buck or pushing the envelope, sonically.

If part of Deacon is a musician, an equal part is an artist. In fact, he’s done many performances in museums. He recently spoke to Pitchfork about Francis Ford Coppola coming to him to create a score for his next film. What interested the director was Deacon’s insistence in “creating a unique experience,” he told the site. “Music as a tangible form isn’t a commodity any longer. Now, live performances make music important. Recording is cool and fun, and it’s nice to document the thing you made, but the goal in my mind is to perform.”

Raise your hand if you're here to have a good time.

The fun part was: we had to perform too. We played a giant version of the game London’s Bridge in which people double up, making an arch with their hands and others go underneath them and create an arch themselves. He had us start this at the center of the room and arch and tunnel our way through the back door to the outside, around the corner and back in the front entrance. Hundreds of people going along with this. He even apologized: “Sorry to the security guys and doormen that I didn’t warn them.” If you mosh you feel like you’re sharing humanity a bit but going through a tunnel made of people definitely tops that.

And the evening went on like that, from organized dancing in a ceremonial chant to the sun (with the sermon provided by Deacon’s music) to the emotional peak of our (the whole room naturally) serenade to the balcony folks, just to share in the fun, with us singing “Silence like the wing overtakes me…. Ooohooooo.” It was, as he said and has said to many crowds before us, “angelic.”

You’d be expecting it from the headline and, sure enough, several other acts played before Dan but it hardly seems fair, does it? Unsigned San Francisco outfit Atlars opened the evening, playing a very chill set of synthpop to the sparsely crowded room. There’s a crooner in Melanie Anne Berlin whose delivery is reminiscent of Caleb Followill’s (of Kings of Leone), guitarist Brendan Brehm and Bertie P standing tall in a dark suit and gelled, carefully parted hair (how very Carlos D of him) playing an upright drum set with, it must be admitted, impeccably stylish zeal. Later, he was grinning hard watching Deacon from above, in love with the experience.

Oona played the second set and although there’s five musicians (and an odd collection at that), singer Oona Garthwaite steals the show, and is the raison d’etre for the group. Stylistic comparisons to certain pop stars are easy, Ke$ha and Gwen Stefani (when she’s in No Doubt, unchoreographed) come to mind. Mostly, though, it felt like gospel and Oona was the preacher, belting out her songs in soulful abandon and the band fits into that with its major key tonality and energetic drumming. Although she’s eye candy to be sure, Oona (the girl) also can blow the top off with her big emotional voice. If they’re playing nearby (they’re from Oakland) you should go because they’re an energetic, and professional lot. Even with the fur bunny ears hat on the keyboardist.

Breaking the mold and truly a fit to open for Deacon was Ed Schrader”s Music Beat. I actually ran into the two-man band at a coffee shop before the show (this is a warning that I’m biased), and they were cool guys for sure, happy to trade Cleveland’s unfriendliness for the nice folks of San Francisco. Their music was ever so slightly more abrasive: it’s Ed fiercely pounding on a single drum and terrorizing the mic with punk rock aplomb and, next to him, Devlin Rice with a bass guitar and reverb pedal. Ed took off his shirt just after the first song—it was hot up there you have to understand—totally breaking the rules like an overeager date trying to get laid. Underlit theatrically, Ed looked fierce up there, adding on to the gothic undertones of some of the songs (which were all around a minute or two long—perfect for the Add-addled generation.) And this was just before Deacon, you know, so it was definitely a harbinger of strange things to come. Still that was something special and you should look for a tour next Spring.

They’re also Deacon’s roommates which really makes this his world. In fact, on his site the heading “Current Projects in the Works” there’s the Coppola film project and then it says “beating Ed Schrader at Ken Griffey Jr Baseball for Super Nintendo.” What a terrific, lovable, genuine genius of a goofball the future-wave-freak-pop world has got us!

Go see Dan live.


Photos by David Price


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