A few minutes before Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s string section took the stage last night at the Ogden Theatre, a slow, bass-heavy drone began washing over the packed-in Denver crowd. Kids who had been jammed against the rail for two hours waiting for the electrifying Montreal symphonic indie-rock act suddenly stopped laughing at concert-goers near the group’s film projector who’d been making shadow puppets. For the first time at any concert I’ve covered as a journalist, the audience and those of us taking photos in the pit seemed equally awed.
By the time all eight members of Godspeed — contributing guitar, loops, keyboard, violin, stand-up and electric bass and various drums — had assembled and captivated the capacity crowd with the beautiful controlled chaos of the drone-induced opener, the response to the twinkling introductory notes of “Gathering Storm” was nearly euphoric.
The security team at the 1,600-capacity Ogden seemed to be busy all night instructing Godspeed fans not to block the few empty spaces, such as stairways, where — even at perhaps the most filled-to-the-rim Colorado show I’ve been to in five years — concert-goers clamored for a better view.
More than anything else, it is how Godspeed You! Black Emperor toys with energy — getting as quiet as one of Brian Eno’s Ambient albums or as explosive as the heavy-metal peak of a Tool record — that explains why some see the instrumental Canadian post-rock collective as so godlike.
Hypnotic black-and-white film loops — including footage of animals, cityscapes, flowers and even haunting stock-market scenes — played while Godspeed engaged in graceful chaos.
It was an especially striking performance just one day after the Super Bowl halftime show, which was a colorful display propping up seemingly meaningless pop songs. Godspeed’s show at the Ogden, by contrast, featured consistently dark images behind a band lit by only a few hazy maroon lights that allowed only those a few feet from the stage to make out the musicians’ faces.
But the music spoke volumes, most powerfully during "Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'," from the 2015 album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. “Peasantry” has the waltzing thump often found in drone-focused stoner metal, but the big, distorted electric guitar and bass at the song’s roots are brilliantly betrayed by what’s obvious in the best of Godspeed’s material: If Godspeed is a symphonic-rock machine, the steady drums are the engine; the string section is the fuel; and David Bryant’s lyrical guitar, with which he leads the whole octet from a folding chair, is the windshield through which we see the band’s apocalyptic vision.
Assembled around five monitors and a slew of pedals that made the stage look like an electronics workshop, the eight members of Godspeed reached the show’s summit with the slow-building “Blaise Bailey Finnegan III,” which includes field recordings of a disturbed American poet anticipating an armed revolution. During the song’s several violent peaks, which seem to all but invite listeners to contemplate the darkest parts of themselves, you realized how many bands “Blaise Bailey” alone has inspired since its release in 1999. Thankfully, not only is the collective that created that sort of “symphony of deconstruction” post-rock blueprint still around; it’s still bringing theaters full of fans to their tiptoes to check out brand-new ideas that make its young imitators sound like one-trick ponies.
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By the Way: Xylouris White, which features only a lute and bombastic jazz drumming, opened the show and was quickly embraced by the young audience. Former Dirty Three drummer Jim White vibed well with George Xylouris, who is from the island of Crete, and the duo’s chemistry injected all kinds of international flavor into a wild avant-rock stew. When White and Xylouris first sat down on stage, two concert-goers had this great exchange: “It’s Wayne Coyne! It’s two Wayne Coynes! It’s the Wayne Coynes!”
Not your average pedal board