Concert Reviews

Live Review: Deerhoof at Bluebird Theater

Deerhoof, Experimental Dental School, Coconut Saturday, October 11, 2008 Bluebird Theater Better Than: The freezing-ass rain outside.

I realize that it can be somewhat fallacious to liken bands to one another simply because they happen to share a bill, but the three bands at the Bluebird Saturday night — San Francisco’s Coconut, Portland’s Experimental Dental School, and Oakland’s Deerhoof — all share a somewhat rare and definitely encouraging approach to art-rock, one that relies far more on intelligence, musicianship and a laid-back attitude than it does on piles and piles of gear and pretension. It’s an approach that Deerhoof typifies these days, and the other two bands felt very much like protégés. It was like an evening spent with friends who are really smart and a ton of fun.

Coconut is a two-piece, just guitar and drums; the drummer occasionally sang, but most of the outfit’s songs were instrumentals built on guitar loops and Saunier-lite drumming. At one point the drummer told a pretty great surrealist joke about whales and humming, in which he was aided by Experimental Dental School’s Shoko Horikawa and Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki, both of whom stayed on to play a song with the band. The group was engaging enough but not terribly memorable; still, the act seems to be learning well from its tourmates.

Experimental Dental School is another guitar-drums two-piece, featuring Horikawa on drums and Jesse Hall on guitar; the two shared vocal duties. They’re both capable players, particularly Hall, who displayed a Nick Zinner-like ability to make his one guitar sound like two guitars plus a bass. The band’s set featured plenty of smart, spastic rock that recalled, well, early Deerhoof—but that’s hardly a bad thing.

As Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier set up his drum kit, a guy next to me commented on its extreme simplicity — just a bass drum, a snare, a crash cymbal and two rides set up like a high-hat — and said, “He’s kind of like the anti-Neil Peart.” And indeed, Deerhoof could be described as kind of an anti-Rush; with its minimal setup of just two guitars (with tiny amps!), drums, bass and vocals, Deerhoof played a set that displayed more intelligence, verve and power than a hundred prog bands and did it with songs that lasted two or three minutes rather than twelve or thirteen.

And comparing Saunier to Neil Peart actually does the former a disservice — that’s how good he is. If the naïf-like Matsuzaki, with her little-girl vocals and incongruously calm stage demeanor, is the heart of the band, Saunier is its soul, and he stole the show Saturday night with his frenzied but impeccably precise drumming. This lanky, twitchy, ungainly guy, who towers over Matsuzaki, his wife, and is given to adorably awkward stage patter, seems absolutely at home behind his kit, which, when he’s not pounding the shit out of it, he sort of coaxes and caresses, like he’s trying to pry — or perhaps conjure — something out of it. He was absolutely a ball to watch.

The same could be said about the whole band, which tore through a wealth of material, much of it from its new album, Offend Maggie. Guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez, whom Matsuzaki recently described as longtime friends, often played in unison or very close to it, and they played their intricate parts seamlessly. On record, the Maggie material is a bit more subdued than Deerhoof’s past efforts, but the band brought it to frenetic, powerful life.

At one point, during a song near the end of the set, Matsuzaki made fun of one of Rodriguez’s cool-guitar-guy poses; at the end of the song she did so again, and the whole band launched spontaneously into a parodic display of rock-star moves that ended up with Dieterich jumping in the air and windmilling and Matsuzaki falling on the ground in an awkward half-splits, laughing. It was the best of many amusing moments, and it illustrated beautifully what makes Deerhoof so special; the group is one of the most talented and innovative acts around right now, yet while the bandmembers certainly take their music seriously, they seem not to take themselves seriously at all. In their warmth, unpretentiousness and sheer brilliance, they proved Saturday night that they are still among the very best that American indie rock has to offer.

-- Kyle Smith

Critic’s Notebook

Personal Bias: Before Saturday night, Deerhoof was a band that I admired more than I loved. Not anymore. Random Detail: Greg Saunier came and stood next to me (I was in the first tier) for the second half of Experimental Dental School’s set. It’s nice to know that the members of Deerhoof are still not too cool to hang out in the audience. By the Way: Deerhoof’s last show in Denver was at the same venue almost exactly one year prior.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera