Saturday, May 16
Dan Deacon is pacing back and forth across the stage of the Bowery Ballroom, hefty and nervous, his arm in a sling. (“Dislocated my shoulder, but everything’s cool,” he says later.) He’s wearing the same cyan-orange T-shirt I have seen him wear at seven or eight other shows in the past two years. Tonight, Deacon is playing two concerts at Bowery Ballroom. Both are sold out. For a Baltimore-based 27-year-old who was virtually unknown until mid-2007, this is notable. More notable because he plays basically unpalatable, noisy, repetitive synth-pop–music as indebted to the elegant patterns of Philip Glass as the elegant patterns of Nintendo soundtracks. Deacon’s songs sputter and flail without rest, stretching the high-impact bonks, woofs, splats and blams of cartoons into wide-angle mantras (sometimes, literally: His 2007 album, Spiderman of the Rings, opens with the sound of Woody Woodpecker’s voice looped for about three and a half minutes.) It’s the kind of music that small, dedicated cults like to freak the fuck out to.
Deacon, as a performer, is happy to oblige, orchestrating 1,000 art-school variants on the conga line: Mid-set dance performances buffered by tone-setting monologues (“We have tusks, we have tusks everywhere, we have beautiful tusks and scales running up and down our arms, we have shapeshifted, we are now reptoid”); group exercises in making weird noises with your mouth; running in circles. At one point, he actually manages to get about 80% of the crowd to leave the room while the band is still playing. Deacon preaches from the pew, and his fans seem to realize how special that is.
Still, it’s weird watching him pace back and forth as baffled techs position his gear table, a pile of high- and low-fi toys patched together with rainbow cables. Real mad scientist-looking junk. In some ways this dance–between Deacon and the techs–is a sign that his ever-growing popularity might kill the intimacy that drew dedicated fans to him in the first place. Deacon’s challenge, then, is how to make shows at impersonal venues like the Bowery Ballroom — where beers cost $8; where there is an auxiliary lounge; where “surprises” are seen as “liabilities” — feel like a warehouse in Baltimore.
I’m happy to say that it’s a challenge he rose to. Deacon is as much a cult leader and motivational speaker as he is a geek or man-child–the kind of person who gets a rush controlling a group of people there to be controlled by him. “TONIGHT’S SHOW WAS SOLD OUT BEFORE THE TOUR EVEN BEGAN,” he says, through a vocoder. Applause. “BUT 300 OF THE TICKETHOLDERS HAVE NOT SHOWN UP YET. YOU ARE THE RESPONSIBLE ONES.” He’s risen to the budgetary allowances–while in past years he basically performed karaoke, tonight he plays with four percussionists, two or three guitarists, a few keyboard players, and a few people who have no clear musical role whatsoever.
The sound, for the most part, is overdriven and muddy. But it’s also pummeling and plenty loud, which is more essential to the atmosphere of his show than clarity. Deacon’s vocals are so processed that it’s impossible to tell what he’s singing. The set is almost entirely from his new and esteemed Bromst, a record I didn’t love as much as some, but one that renewed my interest in his project.
Deacon, despite his neon, despite kooky computer-made videos of Jewish stars and Jack Russell Terriers, despite his Urkel T-shirt and slumber-party punch lines and non-sequiturs (at one point, he asks the audience to imagine Kwato, the alien from Total Recall, living in the stomach of George Costanza and drinking his tears)–despite all the hokum, he’s an intelligent, creative man with a big heart and blood that runs through it. Ironically, watching him lead an ensemble brought out the nostalgic and lonely undercurrents in his music, a druggy feeling of being lost and subsumed, of being washed out. At the peaks of eight-minute blocks of syncopated percussion and sine waves, through the caves of reverb and echo, Dan Deacon sounded like Daffy Duck crying on the moon.
He asks the audience to put their hands up. They do. He finds the people in the audience with the tallest hands. He asks them to move to the center of the room. They do. “I want you to think about a memory you have of summer,” he says. He asks everyone to move in toward the people with the tallest hands. They do. He asks everyone to put their hands on the heads of the people in front of them. They do. “Now apply a little pressure to the head. Just a little pressure, so you know the head is there and they know your hand is there. Now I want you to think about something you have a lot of regret for.” I do. “Now I want you to slowly release the pressure, lift your hands up in the air, and welcome summer with open arms.” I will, I promise.
In 140 characters or less: Irreverent Baltimore transplant leads art-school conga line to sincere summer bliss via distorted sine waves, surreal monologue.