Most folks know Merriweather Post Pavilion as the title of Animal Collective’s 2009 album, as opposed to an actual place. Actually, it’s a beautiful, 20,000-person-capacity, Frank Gehry-designed amphitheater located smack dab in the middle of Columbia, Maryland, which is in and of itself a slightly unsettling place. Columbia’s been ranked second by Money magazine in a list of the “Happiest Places to Live in America,” the mean income of its residents is in the six-figures range, and it’s best known for being one of the first successful planned communities in the nation. So, of course, MPP is a pretty nice venue: plenty of lawn space and a sound system utilized by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Genesis, and R.E.M. alike. In fact, it was the site of the only concert in which The Who and Led Zeppelin shared a bill.
Well, times have changed, and while Columbia remains a Stepford-ian slice of upper-middle-class bliss, Merriweather has shied away from its rock roots, instead evolving into the type of spot where soccer moms can settle in with the kids to catch Katy Perry or Sugarland. So, when I saw that Hot Chip and Sleigh Bells were going to be splitting the bill at Merriweather, I knew I had to attend, not simply because In Our Heads is one of my favorites of 2012 thus far, but also because I was excited to see 20,000 people gathered to see a band OTHER than Sugarland. Can you tell that I hate Sugarland yet?
Well, spoiler alert: there weren’t 20,000 people at this show. Not 10,000. Not 5,000. Not even 3,000. There were MAYBE 2,000 people, which puts this on par with a modest turnout at the popular New York club Terminal 5, of which at least 30 could be crammed into the property. “The last time we had this low a turnout was when Sarah McLachlan played last year,” a Merriweather volunteer told me matter-of-factly before Sleigh Bells’ set. “I haven’t heard of any of these bands. Rascal Flatts is probably going to sell out, though.”
If that wasn’t enough, poor James Murphy — the same, legendary James Murphy who sold out Madison Square Garden with the most epic farewell show ever and who remains one of the most beloved figures in independent electronic music — delivered a DJ set to a whopping 1,500 people. I’d love to talk about the intense visual accompaniments to his infectious mix of soul, funk, house, and rock, except there was none: just the 10-minute cycle of upcoming attractions. Seeing James Murphy DJ with giant Jason Mraz ads flashing all over the place might just be the most depressing thing I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve had the misfortune of seeing The Killers.
Things didn’t fare much better for Sleigh Bells, who, despite their hit-heavy set and huge-ass stack of Marshall guitar amps, found themselves playing to mostly empty seats and a lawn as desolate as Chernobyl. “How are you guys doing out there?!?!?!” Alexis Krauss yowled out to the scattered groups of pot-smoking teenagers, receiving a few “woos” as compensation. Luckily, those closer to the stage were much more enthusiastic, grasping at her leopard-print Keds as if they were made of 24-karat gold.
Speaking of gold, Hot Chip’s set was phenomenal. Even if there weren’t a lot of people, those who were in attendance had their wits about them and chose to stay close to the stage and shake their groove thing. Which was really easy to do, because the London band kept to their catalog’s most infectious tunes: “Night And Day,” “Ready for the Floor,” “One Life Stand.” The extra session musicians punched up the already lush sounds of Alexis Taylor and company with some neat bells and whistles — figuratively, of course, but also literally with regards to a pepped-up version “Over and Over.” Even with the spot-on technical skills and the jubilant mood of the set, the best moment arrived after the band wrapped up the aforementioned The Warning tune. “That’s our song, ‘Over and Over,’ a minor hit from 2006!” Taylor chirped, as if he KNEW the absurdity of his band going from a string of sold-out shows in New York to a half-dead audience in an amphitheater less than one mile away from a Hollister store.
The gradual onslaught of “Flutes” sent shivers down my spine, but what affected me more was the painful realization that, in a matter of weeks, this desolate venue would be filled to the brim with people singing along to “I’m Yours.” And that’s when I realized why I was so sad. Hot Chip is the type of band that SHOULD be selling out 20,000 seats; their sound is playful, smart, and perfectly suited for huge venues like this. To book such large spaces was certainly a gutsy move, and in this economy, it’s difficult for any band to sell 20,000 tickets; but given the buzz and critical acclaim this band’s been receiving lately, I’m surprised there weren’t more people in attendance. I’m no music snob — that was me going nuts at that Katy Perry concert last year — but I know a stellar concert when I see one, and my fellow Marylanders missed out big time. Guys, next time, just watch True Blood on demand — Sookie will be there when you get back.