Deerhoof Live – A Reflection
Deerhoof at Oval Space 26.02.15
This will not be an impartial review. I want that to be clear before I even enter the building. Deerhoof are an undeniably brilliant band. (‘Undeniable’ he says!) I want us to agree on that before I go any further. I’m not saying you have to be on board with them aesthetically, or that you should choose to listen to their music for enjoyment, but that they truly are a brilliant band.
In their 21st year, and on album number 13, ‘La Isla Bonita’ (a Madonna inspired collection are we meant to believe?); Deerhoof have proven themselves highly skilled and innovative musicians, composers and arrangers, time and time again. Mixing the heaviest grooves and infectious hooks, almost childlike in their naivety, with a rich palette of dissonance and counterpoint; they are a band like few others. I have seen them play live a handful of times, and am yet to come away from it feeling any less than awe. Seeing them at their best can be like watching the best up-close magician you’ve ever seen, except there’s four of them. As they blister through song after song, switching tempo, meter and feel on a dime, often seeming to suspend time altogether, only then to come crashing down on the same accent before launching off in some new direction.
“How do they do that!?”
OK, OK, I like this band. Got it.
Now onto tonight's gig. I’ve been hearing good things about the Oval Space; lots of friends report having been to good shows there, but I’ve not yet been there myself, until now. I arrive just as openers Cowtown are wrapping up their set. My first thought is that I should have got here earlier, as they sound like a pretty decent band. My second thought is ‘Oh, i’m not sure they’ve got enough PA (or lighting) in here.’ It’s a fairly large space, i’d guess at least 600 capacity if not more, comprised of some acoustically troublesome features; cement floor, warehouse A-frame type ceiling, and a long stretch of glass which runs the entire length of one side of the venue. To be fair it looks like they’ve taken steps to tame the acoustics a bit. There is some acoustic paneling on the ceiling, and the PA installation has made use of small delay speakers positioned down hall. It doesn’t look to me like the main line array system has been set correctly, but I shouldn’t even have got this far into that, so will leave it there.
The band kick off with ‘Exit Only’ (subversive from the get go); a blistering power chord rocker percolated and rearranged through the Deerhoof filter, taken from the latest album. I’m stood about halfway down the hall, pretty much next to the mix position, and initially it seems as if my fears about the PA may unfortunately be founded. ‘It sounds weird’ the group next to me comment. Indeed, the guitar sound is unfocused, the vocal is struggling to stand up for itself, and the drums lack their usual power, almost as if we are hearing them acoustically in this large space (without the use of PA). Nevertheless, this is Deerhoof, and there is still an amazing band on stage regardless…
They launch into ‘Last Fad’, which really covers some of the Deerhoof bases well.
Introduced by a deceptively simple groove, a slightly off kilter guitar pattern hints at the not so straight forward meter. The song gives way to an effortless and innocent vocal melody in the verse which is then highjacked by the most wonderfully idiosyncratic chromatic guitar line i’ve heard in a while. This line may give some clues as to how the band compose their music. It’s as if they’ve given a dictaphone to a singing child, and then meticulously transcribed it; a mix of precision and dexterity with unbridled joy and abandon.
Though it still feels from where i’m stood that we’re watching from afar. When the crowd cheers, it dwarfs the sound of the PA. To be clear, my argument for more PA would not be for greater volume (higher SPL), but for better clarity of sound; a more evenly dispersed sound throughout the room. I’m going to push on into the crowd and see what it’s like in there.
Once in front of the main PA, i’d say within the front quarter of the room, the sound improves. After another track ‘Girls’, from the new album the band take on some older tunes and i am witness to some of the wonderful high-wire antics that Deerhoof have cultivated over their career. Songs give way to amazing free form psych outs, which in turn melt back into grooves and songs.
‘Let’s dance the jet’ makes an appearance; an inspired cover of the Mikis Theodorakis composition for the 1967 film ‘The Day The Fish Came Out’. Such a great tune could not fail to lift an audience, and such a great band could not fail to lift the tune.
Still, at times, it seems like it may not have been just the PA that was failing to project.
The band look like they’re having to work hard at pulling such moments out. Usually it looks so effortless, so natural, and so much fun!
Satomi, the band’s ever jubilant singer does not look like she’s having much fun. Nonetheless she is patient and gracious, allowing drummer (and perhaps band leader) Greg Saunier his every whim. Although a great deal of the enjoyment of Deerhoof is watching Saunier steer songs and arrangements from behind the kit with his explosive and iconoclastic style, perhaps as a reaction to whatever lack of connection or energy that it is that I think I’m picking up on, he seems at times tonight to be overplaying and overcompensating at times.
Another highlight is ‘Buck and Judy’ from 2008’s album ‘Offend Maggie’. The band continue to stretch songs and rework arrangements in their own inimitable way, and that really is the joy of this group; watching such a tight unit of musicians and friends figure things out and reinterpret things as they go, from night to night, with an almost telepathic connection.
The band finish up with ‘Perfect Me’ from 2007’s ‘Friend Opportunity’. A great ending to the set, another highlight, and another great Deerhoof show case; frenetic drum patterns peppered with spasmodic fills, catchy hooks, nursery rhyme-like melodies, and sheets of ever evolving cascading guitar lines.
Despite not being particularly impressed with the sound in the venue, and the band perhaps not being on top form tonight, you’ve still got to give it up for Deerhoof.
Fighting the good fight.
Here’s to another 20 years?