Ariel Pink (whose real name is Ariel Rosenberg) spent the better part of the last decade making lo-fi recordings of himself in his bedroom and being booed off-stage during solo tours. When he got signed to record label 4AD and released his first studio album earlier this year, though, he went on the road again as a headliner, and last night, he brought his rough, psychadelic pop-rock sound to the Bluebird Theater.
You know you're in for weird with Pink, who has posted lo-fi music videos that feature breast milk. You can only assume the same will be true of the openers he chooses. About fifteen people hugged the front rail of the theater when the first of those acts, Diva, ambled on uncertainly, donning a beaded headdress, a leather jacket and tribal face paint.
It was clear why she'd been chosen: She favored a rough cut sound and a lot of distortion on both the mike and the electric guitar, discordant harmonies comprising every song in her set. Her songs sounded so unfinished, though, that they were mostly unapproachable, like Jefferson Airplane on a bad acid trip. The crowd of hippies and hipsters filtered in and contented itself, instead, with lingering near the bar for PBRs.
Os Mutantes took the stage next, a seven-person band traipsing on amid a collective "shush" from the audience. Formed 36 years ago and then reunited in 2006, the robed and caped group could have been the subject of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, and it carried on with charming quirkiness through a wacky -- though undeniably catchy -- set that channeled the '60s, '70s and '80s, evoking everything from the Grateful Dead to the Beatles to the Dire Straits.
Much of the crowd danced frenetically, the way they would have at a jam band show. And the set took on characteristics of such a show, with instrumental solos and musical references (like "Besame Mucho" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") mashed up into the group's own work. The band scattered a couple of tracks recorded after its reunion into the mix, harder-edged rock numbers dropped into the marching melodies of the classics. At some point, the crowd began to lose interest. Os Mutantes played about three songs too long.
Ariel Pink's band members joined the roadies to set up the stage for the main act, the drummer sipping coffee while they all toyed with the instruments before wandering off. When the lights went down, they meandered back on stage, playing with pedals and mics for a very public soundcheck.
Finally, one of them uttered, "Let's do it, guys." The first notes of the poppy, freak-folky "Beverly Kills" erupted. Pink emerged then, strolling into the thick fog on stage in a light blue woman's blazer from the 1970s over a belted pink smock and flowing pink pants, looking very feminine. That would later play contrast against the masculine riffs of the electric guitar.
When that first song ended, Pink tried to energize the crowd. "Denver!" he yelled through a heavily distorted mic. "Are you fuckin' self-conscious or something? Fuckin' hipsters." The crowd cheered, and he launched into the surfy "L'estat."
Pink's sound is hard to classify because it pulls from several genres at once. His set suggested psychedelic rock, freak folk, synth pop, and lilting '60s and '70s melodies -- sometimes all in one song. That's easier to process on an album, where Pink's seductive voice pulls his intention through. On stage, he amps everything up with plenty of distortion, synthesizer and electric guitar (turned to eleven).
He took us through his broad spectrum of music last night, a hard-edged versions of "One on One," "Flying Circles" and "Foily Foibles" playing foil to more melodic "Bright Lit Blue Skies" and "Fright Night." And the audience erupted for crowd-pleaser roller-disco inducing "Round and Round."
This was not a sing-along show -- with the reverb on the mike, it was hard to hear what he was saying even when he was speaking. But Pink engaged his fans, littering the show with brief commentary, shushing the audience (and his band mate) good-naturedly, asking at one point, mid-song, "Bring the lights down. Now bring them back up." He finished with "Butt-House Blondies," a song with a contagious beat that seduced much of the crowd bouncing around feverishly.
"Thank you very much and good night," he said simply as the band sauntered off stage.
There was a mass exodus at that point, but a foot-stomping sect of fans brought the group back for an encore. After three more punchy numbers, the band was gone for good.
Pink has said in interviews that he half-asses his shows and plays without preparation. On this tour, the first under a real label, that's an exaggeration. It was clear, though, that Pink is more into creating than packaging his music, and much of what he performed last night had an unfinished element.
That made some of his set incredibly challenging, and he lost a sizeable contingent of his audience because of it. When he hit the right balance, though, those rough edges were incredibly charming, not unlike seeing a sculptor throw a pot on the wheel, using his hands to smooth out the shape before our eyes.
For some members of the audience, that window into the artist's world of creation was provocative live, and they went along for the ride, screaming loudly and dancing right into the encore. For others, well, they can probably relate to those who once booed the man off stage.
Click through for Critic's Notebook and Setlist
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: None. Besides the YouTube videos that intrigued me enough to see the guy live, I'd never followed Pink's career. Random Fact: Pink cites The Cure as his favorite band. You can definitely hear the influence. By the Way: The encore songs aren't included in the setlist.
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Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti 11.23.10 | Bluebird Theater Denver, CO
Beverly Kills L'estat Getting High in the Morning One on One Flying Circles Fright Night Menopause Man Foily Foibles Bright Lit Blue Skies Round and Round For Kate I Wait Butt-House Blondies