So, this is where it all started?
It’s impossible not to ask such a question when you’re staring at enormous photos of Ken Kesey and The Dead, iconic sparkling chandeliers, and, literally, hundreds of astonishingly trippy concert posters of significant 60s musical artists at San Francisco’s historical Fillmore Auditorium. Obviously my first time at the venue, I can’t stop walking around the polished wood floor, imagining all the crazy shit that took place over the years. And yet, knowing I’m about to witness one of the most quintessential bands of my generation, I wouldn’t trade this moment for that of any Fillmore hippie — present or past.
Upstairs, amid the enormous pastiche of Joplin, Airplane, and Hendrix memorabilia, sits a fat, white-bearded old man plunking on drums and howl-chanting into a reverb-soaked mic. He’s backed by a mad-scientist character who feverishly cranks knobs, detuning his Korg while an electric bassist scratches out the melody to “Shortin’ Bread.” It’s like some bizarre, psychedelic ghosting ritual.
It isn’t long before 19-year-old Floridian ghetto-star rapper Dominique Young Unique — quite possibly the most in-your-face, confrontational opener I’ve ever seen — takes the stage in full command. With a skirt shorter than William Henry Harrison’s presidency, flawlessly “good hair” tosses, and ultra-dirty, near-unspeakable lyrics, Ms. Unique not only loosens up the crowd in a major way but drops some seriously killer rhymes. “What about me, Miss Unique!?” she hollers over a heavy flux-groove. I seriously doubt I’m the only one thinking, “Who, me?! I didn’t say shit about you, Ms. Unique! I swear! I didn’t say shit!”
The atmosphere is a beautiful combination of humor (“Did she really just say ‘pussy-popping?’ “), awkwardness (“Dude, she just started that entire song over because people didn’t clap on the outro!”), and, most significantly, admiration (“I don’t know what this is, but it’s fun as hell and she’s amazing at it”). Backed by a Macbook-wielding beat-maker and a German keyboardist named Yann — a talented headbanger who’d be right at home with Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem — Unique ends her gutsy set on a short-and-sweet note. “If you’re not feeling it, y’all can go home!” she says as most of us laugh and cheer in response. It’s a funny thing to say, and not only because Dirty Projectors have yet to perform. In light of her ferocious stage presence, well-crafted grooves, and razor-sharp rap flows, it’s clear nearly everyone was feeling it. “Just playin”,” Unique says with a well-earned smile.
When bandleader/vocalist/singer/composer/guitarist/genius Dave Longstreth comes out with his all-white, left-handed Strat behind a purple haze — sorry — of lights, I feel momentarily corny because old Jimi — who stood in that very spot numerous times — springs to mind. But as Longstreth proceeds to tear the ever-loving shit out of his guitar on Getty Address-ed set-opener “I Will Truck,” I’m really not too far off-base. In simple terms, I don’t recall hearing a group so tight, in-the-pocket, and incredibly captivating. When “No Intention” hits with its hip-hop-paced march, chiming guitar hammer-ons and parallel fifths, I can’t stop repeating: “Goddamn. Goddamn. Goddamn.”
Covering all 10 tracks off last year’s astoundingly good Bitte Orca, the Projectors also dip into past favorites like New Attitude EP’s “Fucked for Life” and “Imagine It,” the latter being a tried-and-true demonstration of the band’s diverse talents. For example, while many props are given to female guitar slingers Marnie Stern and Khaki King, I attest Amber Coffman not only has a better voice than the two, but can hold her own on 21-frets at the same time. Just watching her keep pace with Longstreth’s mind-jumbled, spiraling guitar phrases on “Imagine It” and others is more than adequate proof. Aside from astonishing instrumental prowess — Longstreth’s unconventional, inspired solos, gifted bassist Nat Baldwin’s vacuum-sealed hookup with drummer Brian McOmber, etc. — the three-parts female, one-part male vocal harmonies of Dirty Projectors are, possibly, the band’s most identifiable trademark.
During no moment is this more clear than on encore “Remade Horizon” ‘s ping-pong female-vocal acrobatics. Echoing Longstreth’s call-and-response, serpentine guitar line, keyboardist Angel Deradoorian, Haley Dekle, and Coffman sculpt harmonies so irregular I swear it’s the work of illusion. After a raucous rendition of David Byrne-collaborated “Knotty Pine” — acoustic guitar flails making up for any lack of Talking or Head — the band showcases Deradoorian on the lyrically Nico-esque (à la “These Days” ‘s “Don’t remind me of my failures”) tune “Two Doves.” Surprisingly, an ill-placed capo makes the acoustic accompaniment a bit rough on the ears. Deradoorian digs in deep, however, and her exceptionally capable alto thoroughly rescues the song from the momentary lull.
If there’s a brief patch of sloppiness toward the end of the set — “Stillness is the Move,” the most widely known jam, strangely, isn’t the highlight I expect despite Coffman’s determined vocal delivery — it’s quite plausible the band’s lack of onstage inhibition is at fault. Between songs, Longstreth jumps up and down to introduce the next tune, even extending his mic stand in an unsuccessful, but charming, attempt at pole-climbing during “Useful Chamber.” Given the effortlessness displayed during the first half of the set’s more rhythmically, stylistically complex moments, it’s as if the band’s exhaustive mastery of technique and groove frees them to now deconstruct these forms.
Of course, such pseudo-intellectual, music theory speculation means very little when I witness a couple hundred people chant “Rise Above!” and yell, “What hits the spot like GATORADE?!” in unison during set-highlight “Temescula Sunrise.” Not just a half-camp vibe of product-placement, it’s a lovely little reminder we’ve all listened the hell out of the same track. But it’s only when Longstreth sings “Definitely, you can come live with us,” does the vibe of fan-inclusion reach it’s pinnacle. We’re all there, in the place it all started, smiling, waiting for the beat to drop.