Deerhunter Breaks the Concert Mold at Union Transfer

On September 20th at Union Transfer, Deerhunter put on a 2.5 out of 5 show. Mind you, that’s not our review; that is something that the lead singer and guitarist Bradford Cox said on stage in regard to the nights show. They willfully admitted to half-assing that nights show to a room full of ravenous fans, and it was downright incredible to witness. Deerhunter had what can be tentatively described as an “on-stage meltdown” and it was probably the most organic and honest musical experience I or anyone else in that venue will ever experience.

The show started out fairly normal, or at least as close to which as you’re going to get at a Deerhunter concert. The band took the stage 20 minutes before their first song, waited for the applause to subside, and then calmly proceeded to tune their instruments and do mic checks. And while seeing a major band doing their own grunt work for a show shouldn’t be a fundamentally odd thing to witness, it undeniably was. It’s an almost nonsensically humble thing to see at a major venue.

When they launched into “Dream Captain”, it was this odd combination of understated intensity and complete disconnect. The stage lights went low as if to completely deemphasize the band, almost pushing attention away from them actively. The only thing that could be made of lead singer Bradford Cox was the silhouette of his slender frame and intense mushroom-esque bowl cut. And it was, put simply, a very good show. The band didn’t really talk, but it fit into this larger persona, and seeing the odd relationship between Deerhunter’s tendency towards pure instrumental and Bradford’s vocals play out on stage was honestly rather fascinating, almost as if the two were struggling for supremacy.

But then then the subdued ambience gradually gave way. The band started chewing on theirmusic, putting a little more growl into each guitar riff and a little more venom into the lyrics. If I had to put my finger on the actual turning point, it would probably be somewhere around the first time Cox spoke, in which he mentioned the very recent death of a close friend. He then proceeded to take “Desire Lines”, dig his incisors into it and use it like a chew toy.

And finally Cox stopped playing altogether. He walked the front of the stage, said “what should we play next?” and proceeded to dismiss all the requests as “end of the show s**t, c’mon”. Then when someone yelled out “Operation” he casually said that “that’s the only one we don’t know how to play”. Let’s be clear: he freely admitted to not being able to play on of his own songs. Most musicians wouldn’t admit something like that if you dangled them over a pit of lava, and Cox volunteered that information with relative cheer. Depending on who you ask that is either remarkable honesty or blatant unprofessionalism, but regardless it definitely set the tone for the remainder of the night.

They cranked out one more song and then Bradford  stopped playing, removed his bowl cut (which was apparently a wig), shouted for the lights to be turned up to “florescent to make everyone ugly” and just talked for 20 minutes. He started by complaining about the “Philly’s Kid” in the front row who never seemed satisfied by his performance. I’m still not sure whether or not that judgmental Philly’s kid exists, but he would go on to become a reoccurring demon for Cox for the remainder of the night.

Topics for the 20 minute rant that followed were: his utter disdain for heroin users and junkies in general, how old he is and how obnoxiously young his audience is, how mortality is looming over everything we do, the inherent BS-ness of everyone and everything, how everybody just wants to hear the same three songs at all of his show, the mockery of Neil Young, that his guitarist looking like the kid from E.T., and how the show was frankly not working. His band mates were visibly uncomfortable for the entirety of it, but Cox just kept talking with a complete disregard for anything. It was a man in the throes of grief who had absolutely no patience for the trappings and rituals that we often associate with shows like this. He wasn’t going to cater to us or pretend that he was happy to be there, and he damn sure wasn’t going to dance for our amusement. Bradford Cox essentially threw what may have been one of the most unique musical tantrums ever pitched; instead of smashing guitars and tearing up the stage, he ripped apart the very concept of a concert.

Efforts to get back into their set dissolved almost immediately; Cox and the rest of the band stormed off stage in a state of intense frustration, leaving the audience with nothing but the sound of reverb for over ten minutes. By the time they returned to the stage, Union Transfer was hemorrhaging fans.

When the band got back Cox announced that they’d had a band meeting backstage and decided that since they’d given us a rather mediocre show so far, they would really give it their all for the last 2 songs. They then proceeded to, very casually, do an absolutely explosive performance of “Helicopter” and “Cover Me”, performing it with almost palpable sense of fury.  Someone once described Deerhunter to me as a band that is fundamentally about anger, and it wasn’t until I saw them play “Helicopter” that I really understood that assertion. Anyone can make a song about being angry, but it take stomach to create this under spoken, well balanced, beautiful little song and then tear it limb from limb on stage. They played that song into the freaking ground.

Then without a word they walked of stage, and for what must have been the first major show I’ve ever seen, not a single person even considered asking for an encore.

The crowd dispersed that night puzzling over whether they had just seen an amazing musical event or an unapologetic trainwreck. Judging from the dichotomy of people grumbling into their cigarettes and those almost dancing out the front doors with excitement, it seems unlikely that a greater consensus was reached. I would assert, however, that the answer was some combination of the two. Deerhunter put on a crap show, the kind that in most cases would get you booed off stage. They broke almost every single standard for an enjoyable live performance. But that’s because it wasn’t a performance—it was art.

A concert is something inherently prepackaged; even the most progressive band still confines themselves to the goal of pleasing the audience. It’s only when you completely and utterly disregard the audience that it becomes something actually organic. This was chaotic, violent artistic expression in the most sincere manner I think I or anyone else in that room has ever seen. We all stood there and watched a concert be ruined by the genuine expression of human suffering.

And as a side note, let it never be said that the Fans of Deerhunter are anything less than an extraordinary bunch. In fact I hesitate to call them fans; these people are devotees of an almost cult-like level. These people quietly stood and watched a prolonged nervous breakdown while only breaking the silence to occasionally shout positive feedback. Even those that walked only did so after taking hours of abuse from the stage, and those that got those last two songs demonstrated an almost zen like level of patience. There is no such thing as a casual fan of Deerhunter; it’s a band that these people have studied and devoted time to, pouring over every detail of Cox’s life and artistic mindset. If nothing else, that degree of devotion from the fanbase in the face of such a tumulus show is probably the greatest compliment to Deerhunter that can be expressed.

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