Show Review: John Carpenter: Live Retrospective at the Fox Oakland, 6/17/2016

by Jonathan Pirro on June 23, 2016

John Carpenter

John Carpenter

Music in film is an often-celebrated phenomenon, but it seems to exist primarily in the medium it’s made for. Occasionally, composers and songwriters will offer up their works for public or private performance, though they themselves may not be in attendance, and in general the world of film music feels very separate from that of “traditional rock music”, i.e. the bands that release albums and promote them with live tours. The phenomenon of a live tour by acclaimed horror director John Carpenter, therefore, is even more impressive; his musical works not only require an actual band to perform (with synthesizers and guitars driving the melodies, rather than orchestras and choirs), but the tunes are steady, driving, and in small enough bits that they are easy to digest — this isn’t a random night at the symphony, folks! In addition, Carpenter himself wrote the scores to a good chunk of his films, so the live performance of compositions and overtures from his classic works could now be experienced with an ever more present vitality.

Daniel Davies on guitar for John Carpenter's live band

Daniel Davies on guitar for John Carpenter’s live band

While the show was a bit late to start, kicking off thirty minutes past the advertised start time of 8:00PM, it nonetheless moved forward with basically zero filler, and plowed through an impressive set in just under the span of an hour and a half. While Carpenter himself was not terribly animated onstage — limited to his synthesizers, he occasionally threw a fist into the air, or shuffled a small jig at his keys — his band moved in full sway, their animation sharp and purposeful in response to the pulsing, bleak instrumentals that they churned out onstage. Guitarist/keyboardist Daniel Davies — himself the son of Dave Davies of The Kinks — was the most exciting to watch, as he effortlessly traded duties on both axe and synths, and let loose on each instrument with a precise fury. It looked as though he pressed all of his strength into each string pluck or key press — a stark contrast to the undulating, borderline-ambient music that billowed out around him.

John's son Cody Carpenter on keys

John’s son Cody Carpenter on keys

As Carpenter had released two actual solo records within the last year and a half (Lost Themes in February of 2015, and Lost Themes II in April of this year), songs from those albums took up a decent chunk of the set. The bulk of the performance, of course, was culled from his famous backlog of horror movie themes — everything from Assault on Precinct 13, to They Live, to In The Mouth of Madness — and visuals from the films accompanied the live performances, set behind the band on a massive screen. Carpenter even paid tribute and gave a warm acknowledgement to renowned composer Ennio Morricone, and performed the theme from The Thing which Morricone had scored. The show came to a close, just past 9:30pm, with the overture from Christine as the final number of the set.

John Carpenter and his live band

John Carpenter and his live band

It helped a lot to speak to numerous fans of Carpenter’s work, both casual and fanatic, about this show, both before and after the performance; being only an occasional watcher of his movies (out of being busy, not from disinterest!) I definitely found the show enjoyable, but was mostly drawn to his more recent Lost Themes work during the set, so I wasn’t personally going wild with cheers when hearing the themes from his classic films. The general feeling from all who witnessed it was one of deep satisfaction and powerful nostalgia; many were reliving their first memories of the films or re-experiencing the scores in an entirely new dimension. The diehard fans, many of whom had shown up prior to the show for a meet-and-greet, also emphasized that being able to experience the music in a live setting was a rather transcendent experience — something that few other film directors have offered to their fans.

For anyone who is a big fan of Carpenter’s work, who wishes to try the extremely entertaining experience of rock band-style live performances of film scores, or who simply is drawn to the driving, remarkably-catchy-dark-synth-tunes that Carpenter has expertly crafted for the last several decades — this is absolutely the show for you. The hope, then, is that Carpenter comes back for another round — this is the first time he’s ever gone on tour, performing his work live — so catch him if you can!

John Carpenter's Live Retrospective setlist

John Carpenter’s Live Retrospective setlist

Additional photos from the show below. All photos are © 2016 Jonathan Pirro.

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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