The location was the Calvin Theater in Northampton; the reaction was pure euphoria, an all-body experience. Scroll down to view the photo gallery.
TEXT & PHOTOS BY JENNIFER KELLY
Since its early aughts emergence, Animal Collective has spliced campfire songs with club beats. They’re one of the few bands to have been counted, loosely, approximately and simultaneously in both the freak folk and the noise-dance-Black-Dice-ish camps, though neither designation ever fit very well. Lately, though, the beat-driven, rave-y side of them has predominated. Records like last year’s Painting With and the subsequent EP The Painters have had less of the soaring and lyrical, more of the thudding programmed rhythms, and the current live show, which leans heavily on these two releases, is likewise trance-y and electronic. If your favorite Animal Collective thing ever was Sung Tongs (or perhaps the EP with Vashti Bunyan), this would NOT be your show.
And yet, for the crowd of kids packed around the stage — a couple of them dressed in pajama-like animal costumes — the current iteration was a powerful euphoric. In the first couple of rows, the pounding beats surged up from the floor like an electric current, the sing-song-y lyrics lifted animal (sorry) spirits up to the rafters, and the elaborate onstage art, flashed and pulsed in time, an all-body experience if there ever was one.
The night opened with Haley Fohr’s Circuit des Yeux, a stark, spare version of her extreme vocal art, accompanied by 12-string, loops and lots of pedals. She is thin and spry and a little gawky, an excellent picker in the American primitive tradition, but the really surprising thing about her, every time, is how deep and powerful her voice is. She seems, since the last time I saw her, to have settled more comfortably into live performance, no longer hiding behind hair and a trucker’s hat, but taking up a center position and letting loose with her velvety contralto. She can hold a note for two or three measures, the tone absolutely clear and pummeling and far from drifting off, actually crescendoing as she goes.
I hadn’t realized, up to this point, how good of a guitar player she was either. She sounds at times like Jack Rose in a particularly lyrical “Crossing North Forks” frame of mine, at others like mystical Basho, at still others plays with a bossa nova lilt in her lines. The set culminates in a long, multi-part “Story of this World,” a song which appears on 2015’s In Plain Speech, but which here is blown out into a folk-rock-psych odyssey, moving from pretty folk to thunderous guitar feedback and back again. Extraordinary set.
Animal Collective follows, with Panda Bear, Geologist and Avey Tare set up on consoles and a drummer on kit in the back. It is, possibly, because so much of their work is three guys twiddling knobs that the stage show is so critical and elaborate. Three grey statues flank the stage, crossing Easter Island monumentality with a line-drawn whimsy: they are, left to right, a woman in a bow-tie, a dog with a party hat and a hand sticking out of his head, and an approximation of Mr. Potatohead as drawn by Picasso. I say they’re grey, and that’s their natural state, but over the course of the show, they are lit up in every rainbow color, pulsing in orange, blue, green, red, purple in time to Animal Collective’s powerful rhythms. The whole back wall of the stage is taken up by a painted screen, on which images, some abstract, some literal, all colorful, are projected throughout the show. Some of the imagery ties directly into lyrical content (during “Bees” there are bees on the screen), and all of it is coordinated to shifts in tempo and musical phrasing, so I imagine Animal Collective must follow a pretty strict set list, so as to match up to the visuals. Even so, however, the light show doesn’t seem to constrain the show or push it in unwanted directions or even distract; it is as much a part of the experience as the music itself.
The show opens with altered, abstracted vocal sounds and then the big hard beat of “Hocus Pocus,” the dark stage lit up, all of the sudden with spiraling blue lights. A playful, island mood takes over in the trebly “Water Curses,” from an EP released almost ten years ago, with strobing flashes of red and yellow lighting up the stage and statues. You don’t want to be an epileptic at this show. A more spiritual vibe emerges from the surging, intercutting voices of “Guys Eyes,” as Avey Tare sings “Need her, need her,” over and over. A string of happy, peppy, electronically jacked songs ensues “Burglars,” “On Delay,” and then the staccato, sticks on rims syncopation of “Sweet Road,” the splayed harpsichord chords of “Bees” brings us back, briefly, into a more lyrical, vulnerable early avatar of the band. (Though not unchanged, “Bees” is a lot more hopping-up-and-down jacked than I remember it.) The main set closes with an extended version of “Summertime Clothes,” which so pleases the crowd (and the band) that they stop once and do a bit of the chorus again.
An encore starts with the messy staticky electric pop of “Recycling” and “Kinda Bonkers” and then finishes with “Daily Routine,” a prime example of the kind of soaring, melodic anthemry that Animal Collective used to regularly pull off and now mostly avoids. Towards the end Panda Bear trades vocals with Avey Tare, Tare in a rhythmic chant, Bear in baroquely beautiful descants. The audience has applauded three times like the show is over before he finishes, but he keeps coming back with another achingly pretty choral flourish. Yeah, we missed it, too.