If you’re a sucker for this sort of stuff, it’d be hard to imagine a more perfect setting for a Super Furry Animals show than that of this year’s 4Knots. This was in Hudson River Park, at the end of Pier 84 at the magic hour — one of those silvery July twilights, the sun shrinking away off the edge of the world before yielding, finally, to the liquid lysergic video backdrops the band brought along for this headlining set: swirls of stroboscopic technicolor, twitchy newsreel cut-ups, a Floydian mise en abyme of digital pyramids expanding ever outward. Factor in the hypnotic autoplayed intro to “Slow Life” — the entrance music to which the Furries strode out, clad in identical white hooded hazmat-type coveralls, and took up their instruments, sliding in seamlessly with the track — and man, it was all the kind of gestalt known to make a certain breed of frazzled cat scream “Freak out!” and run for cover (and certainly, most assuredly, to leave besotted music journalists overworking their prose in a doomed effort to convey it all).
The crowd, before that, had been listless in a way that was almost palpable. It had been a long day. Many festivalgoers lay spent in the grassy sward off beyond the viewing area proper. Only maybe about nine or ten rows staked their claim in front of the stage. Aboard the Hornblower Infinity, docked stage-left along the pier, idlers soaked up the final few hours of V.I.P. treatment, trading in drink tickets and moseying about and stretching out along the railings. Whether those remaining for the day’s final act were there out of pure abiding fandom or just inertia was an open question.
But then maybe the abeyant mood represented the gathering of some ineffable force; maybe everyone was just conserving energy. Or maybe the Super Furries won themselves a fair few converts. By the time the band got to the title track from Rings Around the World, the crowd had swelled and gelled and focused, with a guy just over this reporter’s right shoulder saying something about how this was not at all what he’d thought this group was about, and was (quote) dope.
Even if you did have some notion what to expect, though, based on recorded evidence — SFA’s impressive catalog, their variety of styles a grab-bag nonpareil — the band were here to pull the tablecloth out from under those preconceptions. Like the Flaming Lips, in many ways their closest American analogue, the Furries are infinitely more muscular live, more driving and propulsive and head-nod-worthy; here is where I should doff cap to Dafydd Ieuan, drummer par excellence, plus he sings (sometimes lead, always well). But even in terms of mode or style: You’d expect Britpop-y melodicism shot through with touches of outré psychedelia and techno flourishes, but this was more often, especially when it came to songs’ extended codas, a full-on heavy-groove orgy — one that centered on some heretofore uncharted sweet spot between jam and EDM, with drops to put Skrillex to shame (the whomping final movement of “Receptacle for the Respectable” comes to mind), plus one-chord pedals reminiscent, again, of the Floyd (“Echoes” in particular) and total loopy wig-outs courtesy of Cian Ciarán, multi-instrumentalist and (to use a term I know he dislikes, but that nonetheless seems about right) synth wizard.
There were, of course, quieter moments to break up all this walloping hugeness: the show-stopping “Run! Christian, Run!”; the pastoral gloom of “Pan Ddaw’r Wawr”; the haltingly pretty “Mountain People”; a “Hometown Unicorn” that, slowed down just a skosh, sounded even more like the Beach Boys. All of which only goes to point up how well-programmed the performance felt: Here we had less a loose collection of songs spanning SFA’s two decades of output (though that was, in fact, also true) and more a cohesive whole, a show, right down to the costume changes (frontman Gruff Rhys donning his trademark Sun Ra–spaceman helmet; later, everyone but Ciarán leaving the stage so as to be outfitted in those Yeti-longhair getups) and employment of droll cue cards (“APPLAUSE,” “PROLONGED APPLAUSE,” “APESHIT”). Still, the proceedings hadn’t been so rigidly plotted as to preclude offhand asides, like when the band saluted a passing party cruiser, with Ciarán blatting a simulation of its horn on his keyboard and Rhys instructing the crowd to wave to the folks on board.
So maybe this wasn’t the edge of the known world after all; maybe there were people out there, elsewhere, doing other things as this Saturday darkened into night. But one thing I can say for sure is that those people drifted right by something very special.