From a couple of weeks ago. Originally published on In Review Online.
When I first heard that Beach House would be opening for Grizzly Bear at First Avenue, my immediate response was, “Ooo, dreamy!” Representing two less than mainstream stands of melodic pop music, they are a perfect match for each other. Grizzly Bear was in town a few months ago, a mere week after the release of their critically acclaimed new CD and tickets sold out faster than you could even attempt to say Veckatimest. But the show got mixed reviews, employing words such as ‘boring’ and ‘sloppy.’ Ouch! I had seen Grizzly Bear a couple years back, opening for TV on the Radio, and although their performance has faded from memory, I certainly would have remembered sloppy. I chalked it up to heightened expectations and got a ticket so I could see for myself. I was as smitten with Veckatimest almost as much as everyone else and I was very eager to see Beach House, who’s 2007 Devotion swept me off my feet.
Ultimately, the First Ave show did sell out, but not until the night of the show. As I confirm my drinking age to the man at the door, I notice that tickets are still being sold at the door. The crowd is sparse and I easily find a spot near the front. Either people aren’t as excited Beach House as I am, or they are really laid back. They are playing Blade Runner on the large screen that drops down in front of the stage until the band is ready. I am lost in thought about the surreal unicorn scene when the screen comes up and Beach House comes up on stage. A percussionist joins Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally on stage, as the three of them squish into the very small space allotted to them among Grizzly Bear’s accoutrements—instruments and a plethora of funky bell jar lights hanging from poles. Beach House has tried to establish their own space on stage by placing a large white triangle center stage behind Victoria and her keyboards as Alex hunkers down on a chair to her right with his guitar and his Saturday Night Fever white sports coat.
I’m a lazy music fan. I listen without much investigation. So when Beach House opens with “You Came to Me” and Alex’s head is drooped over his guitar—far from available microphone—my blind assumptions about the band are off. Victoria does the vocals, not Alex. It’s like the optical illusion of the old woman/young woman: you’re brain immediately sees one and locks in on it, and seeing the second is a huge discovery. As I stand and watch her sing, I wonder how I could have ever inferred otherwise. Incredibly compelling, Victoria has a way of drawing out her voice that is similar to Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards, another lower than average female vocalist. My intuition was correct: this is dreamy. Their rendition of “Gila” is thoroughly swoon-worthy. Alex’s gentle plucking emerges sugary sweet from his guitar. They employ some iPod accompaniment in the way of beats that gives them a fuller sound.
Victoria’s face is covered by bangs too long to be called bangs so it is hard to see her expressions during the random banter. They insist that the next song is perfect for making out, but then Victoria gets stuck on what day it is. “Is today Monday? Monday is perfect for making out. Is it Monday? It’s Wednesday? Oh. Well, okay, it’s not Monday, but it is hump day, if you know what I mean…” The idea of making out or humping at First Ave is almost nauseating, but Beach House seems like the best option for a soundtrack, venue notwithstanding. They pulled the plug after a very short hour. The set included mostly songs from Devotion, but also a handful of exciting new songs that set me heading for the merch table in hopes of finding a new EP or full length. Not yet. Beach House signed a deal with Sub Pop and will have a new release early 2010.
Milling around, I realize how crowded it has gotten since I arrived. I have given up my front and center spot for a more subdued back-by-the-bar position. Grizzly Bear promptly takes the stage at 10:30 and they shoot straight into “Southern Point.” The opening song to Veckatimest is a stunning song and pulls you in for the remaining 11 tracks. They attempt to do the same thing live, although I’ve always thought there has been value in the common logic of burying the show-stopping songs mid-set—the best for last mentality—but I am all for instant gratification, and that is exactly what “Southern Point” offers. Spotlighting Daniel Rossen’s unique vocals (that remind me more and more of Stephen Stills, the most underappreciated letter in CSNY) and the delicate crescendo and harmonies. They settle back and reel out some of their best songs from Veckatimest and Yellow House including a version of “Knife” that emitted a glow from the chorus that was absent the rest of the show. The wired Bell Jars that titivate the stage with more clutter than decoration flicker in random waves with the music.
Self-conscious rock stars that they are, the four piece visibly perked up when Victoria from Beach House came up on stage to lend vocals on two songs. Her presence on “Two Weeks” seems so natural, I make a mental note to check the liner notes on Veckatimest to see if she on the recorded version. (She is.) Ed Drost who has been irrepressibly focused the entire show is breaking into a smile as the two join forces on “Slow Life,” a song on the upcoming Twilight: New Moon soundtrack. (No joke.) It’s a fantastic song. Someone involved in the Twilight film is doing a very good job of introducing the tweens to artists that they might normally not be exposed to. (In addition to Grizzly Bear and Beach House, the soundtrack includes songs from Thom Yorke, Lykke Li, Killers, Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Sea Wolf, Ok Go and more.) Victoria’s more organic present as a performer is a marked contrast to the studious workmanship of the Grizzly Bear guys, and I’m sorry to see her leave the stage after two songs.
The fact that Grizzly Bear can’t match the perfection of their recordings is more a compliment to their studio skills than a criticism toward their live prowess. Much of the layering and intricacies are lost in the show—which is to be expected—but the fact that they seem hesitant to commit to a live persona, either harmonizing folk powerhouse ala Fleet Foxes or unrestrained experimental romp ala Animal Collective, leaves them tossing off a pseudo rock show that fails to highlight their strengths. I recently saw Jonathan Caouette’s documentary/montage All Tomorrow’s Parties which celebrates the freeform UK music festival through ten years of footage. At the end of the film there is a scene where Daniel, Ed and Chris of Grizzly Bear, armed only with an acoustic guitar, sing a song on the beach. It was beautiful. Why aren’t they doing any of that? I couldn’t help but think that this snippet was better than anything I had seen tonight.
Chris Taylor shyly speaks up and says, “I know you guys probably hear this a lot…” Yes we do. Everyone loves Purple Rain and Prince, and this is what First Ave represents to most visiting acts. But Prince hasn’t played here in years and probably never will again. The band seems to lumber to the home stretch, closing out with a sweet “On a Neck, On a Spit.” It is a bouncy lullaby that the whole crowd is into, causing obligatory protest of cheers as they leave the stage. They send us home with “Fix It,” a song from the early days of Grizzly Bear. Far from the melodramatic aura of Purple Rain, First Ave is far more grounded in solid, satisfying music tonight. Beach House rocked my world enough that I could forgive the minor lapses in Grizzly Bear’s performance. If the magic is in Grizzly Bear’s recordings, then most fans are going to more than happy to see an apparition of the same brilliance, myself included.