Yeasayer at the Ogden Theatre, 8/26/12
As soon as the lights dimmed for Yeasayer's entrance, the cheering began. Moments later, when the bizarre, sci-fi mirror-monstrosity of a stage set was revealed, the cheers surged, then surged again when the band came out. Was this crowd pumped? It was, and rightfully so. Over the past three or four years, Yeasayer has built a devoted following with its deep, willfully weird art-pop albums and a live show that is equal parts heady and visceral. Tonight's show played to both of those strengths, with only minor issues.
The outfit opened with a thumping take on "Blue Paper" that, along with the "funhouse mirror from Planet X" stage set, offered a blueprint of exactly what was to come. That song, and the majority of the night's music, was constructed of a driving beat, a gut-punching low end, and layers of echo that built a skeletal framework for each song. The vocals fleshed things out, often in three-part harmonies, while squiggles of synth and guitar skittered in and out and all around the pulsing, muscular beast of the beat.
This approach owes a fair bit to both dub and electronic dance music, and it worked here amazingly well for the vast majority of the band's material. New songs such as "Henrietta" and "Longevity" felt like they were revealed in their true glory. An early set take on "2080" delivered it as a burst of cataclysmic pop and shamanic release. "Wait for Summer" was similarly transformed, and the main-set closer, "Ambling Alp," a track that could have suffered in this style but came off perfectly, complete with shout-along chorus and near-religious ecstasy from the crowd.
That's not to say that everything benefited equally. A mid-set take on "O.N.E." was clunky and awkward, leaving the pieces of the song that were left feeling unmoored and a little lost. That drained a bit of the energy the band had built up with its opening, which was exacerbated by following it with "Don't Come Close," a mellower track of unknown origin (it's not on any of their albums, anyway) that wasn't bad so much as seemingly out of place. There were some minor sound issues -- a slightly muddy low end and too-quiet guitar at several points -- but nothing major enough to derail things.
The mirror-mad phantasm of a stage set was gorgeous and went a long way toward helping set and sustain the otherworldly vibe of the night. The use of color, various spots, disco balls, video projections and luminescent piping was extremely effective. During "Reagan's Skeleton," the stage pulsed with weird symbols and an eerie red light, offering a perfect visual setting for the song's pulsing paranoia.
More important than the visual accompaniment, Yeasayer is a powerful live act. Like the best performers, the band's members display a knack for feeding the crowd, then feeding off it in a gorgeous feedback loop. A fair bit of what they do seems sequenced, based simply on how much is going on with just four guys playing, but it never felt canned or robotic. To the contrary, the whole set seemed alive with a primal, mesmeric energy that, by all rights, should be impossible to fake. Indeed, apart from the odd flaw mentioned, it was a gorgeous, intense set, capturing a powerful band just settling into the peak of its power.
Personal Bias: I have been a fan of Yeasayer since All Hour Cymbals and consider them to be one the best, if not the best, art-pop bands currently active.
Random Detail: Asian chick with the Mohawk mullet, congratulations: You win the evening. Obnoxious dudes with the inflatable novelty hammer: You lose.
By The Way: The opener, Daughn Gibson, did a kind of electro-goth thing with a very slight folk tinge. Reminiscent of Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave, it didn't make much of an impact thanks to a canned backing track and an uninspiring performance. My Backbeat colleague, Mark Sanders, liked him quite a bit more than I did, for what it's worth.
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