Deerhoof / Ben Butler & Mousepad / Fred Frith / Phillip Greenlief Duo
Great American Music Hall; San Francisco, CA
Few groups can get away with an album title as brazen as Our Band Vs. Evil. But when 16-year veteran avant-pop, indie-superheroes Deerhoof play a record-release show for an album with such a name, the band isn’t simply out to spar with said Evil. They mean to fucking conquer it.
But before the Super Friends foursome would demonstrate how to slay wickedness with dissonant-consonant hooks, stadium-ready power chord-chugging, and over-the-barline drum fills, the night would begin with a musical veteran of a slightly different variety (and an even longer-stretching history). Although I’d seen opener Fred Frith — Oakland-based Mills College Professor and guitarist/composer/improviser extraordinaire — recently at a bar across the street from my house, his duo set with SF-saxophonist Phillip Greenlief was assuredly distinct. Navigating drone-meditations with thoughtful intention, the two men carefully move from subtlety into dynamic peak after peak. The entire performance, however, remains relatively self-contained. Filling in for Deerhoof side project Nervous Cop — due to a broken-footed Zach Hill — Frith and Greenlief’s improv-ready set made perfect sense for such a last-minute addition. Still, my “favorite” moments occurred when unknowingly disrespectful crowd-members talked through the performance and continually misplaced instances of applause. “Wait,” I overhear someone say, “They’re still going?” Yes. Yes, they are.
But if anybody got the raw end of the crowd’s stick, it was German and Scottish based duo Ben Butler & Mousepad. When Butler encourages the crowd that “this is dance music. It’s okay to move your body!” I’ve rarely seen so many self-conscious folks afraid to shake it. Butler is a Korg-splattering virtuoso while his drummer-in-arms lays it down over glitchy beatronics à la NES’s Ninja Turtles 2. After ending things with an accelerando of epic proportions, the band withholds a final cymbal crash in favor of toying with the crowd’s expectations.
By the time Deerhoof steps onstage, the sold-out crowd is treated to a strangely amusing sight: pint-sized singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, duo-guitarists John Dieterich, Ed Rodriguez, and drummer/spokesperson Greg Saunier all wearing tiny masquerade masks. As if we didn’t already recognize these folks — which is probably the joke. Dieterich and Rodriguez waste little time jumping into descending guitarmony intro to “Dummy Discards a Heart,” off 2003’s now-classic Apple O. “Play to the Queen of Heart,” Matsuzaki chirps in between blasts of feedback and distortion, “Sing to the one you love the best!” It’s only fitting a band that’s been “playing” and “singing” as long as Deerhoof have should open with such an anthem.
While the rollicking, dynamic-extremes of “Milk Man” is a technical-drummer’s wet dream, I’m struck by the guitar interplay between Dieterich and Rodriguez. These two have been jamming with each other long before Deerhoof and anyone can see how well they mesh. Along with a fair share of intersecting lines, the two sound like one huge impossible guitar. Dieterich — rocking a 12-string electric throughout — not only added an unusual timbre to familiar tunes but, what with the extra-octaves, gave the impression of an even greater, three-man guitar of sorts.
Although billed as an album-release show, it’s funny how rarely the band members mention the latest record. Instead, drummer Greg Saunier opted for comical moments of non-sequitors and awkward interlude banter. But even if Deerhoof didn’t talk-up their latest much, they weren’t afraid to rock the new material live. In fact, the most inspired moments of the set occurred during new tunes like “The Merry Barracks” and encore-ready “I Did Crimes for You.” The latter’s interlocking guitars suspended and drove home one of the most powerful, deceptive cadences I can ever remember. Other new ones (“Almost Everyone, Almost Always” and “Must Fight Current”) saw Saunier assuming guitar duties and Dieterich taking on vocals and drums, respectively — with quite good results.
Of course, by the night’s end, no one can deny the Vs. Evil highlight “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” With a relentlessly hooky keyboard intro and thumping, descending bass line, it’s the most un-Deerhoof pop song the band’s ever written. The term “un-Deerhoof,” however, clearly is a misnombre. There’s no sound, hook, or idea these individuals are afraid to explore. So I suppose when Matsuzaki yelps, “Me to the rescue!” and then later, “You to the rescue!”, it’s not as if they view themselves as the only superheroes in the room. Maybe by becoming a listener who’s willing to explore new sounds, regardless of initial comfort, we can learn how to fucking conquer evil too. Or at least fall in love with music for another 16 years.