Even after the universal acclaim of 2007’s revelatory Person Pitch, it’s still hard for me to wrap my mind around the overwhelming popularity of Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (a.k.a. Noah Lennox). I don’t, of course, mean to suggest his success is in any way undeserved — in fact, there are few, if any, artists who’ve demonstrated greater creativity, equally wild experimentation, and sheer originality in recent years. So, as I witnessed frat-bros, raccoon-eyed teenagers, girls in stuffed panda hats (?), and even a fucking t-shirt that read Sigma Fi’s Panda-monium 2008, I wondered: why did Monday night’s show at Oakland’s swanky Fox Theater draw a crowd so foreign to my expectations? As it turns out, there’s a lesson to be learned — one, thankfully, that goes beyond simply bitching about bros and hipsters.
But before any such realizations, I quickly became aware of the ill-fitting opener Nite Jewel. I’m not sure how this LA band — essentially a keyboard pop group with an uninspired, lazy front-woman — ended up opening for a musician who is light years beyond in terms of musical artistry. In all fairness, perhaps their white-boy funk grooves would be better experienced in a smaller setting than the augmented acoustics of the golden, behemoth venue. Still, when a band has some of the worst-rehearsed endings in recent memory, it only makes Lennox — who effortlessly navigates, fades, weaves one song to the next — sound even better. But hey, they covered Sparks, managed a decent drum and bass hookup, and even featured a nifty, David Gilmore-esque guitar solo. That’s cool, right?
It wasn’t until a handful of stoned, drunk frat-boys began singing the worst rendition of “Comfy in Nautica” as they impatiently awaited the headliner did I reach the pinnacle of irritation — or was it the teenage pot-head who spilled beer all over me? Either way, I was certain that when Panda Bear’s set began, its unconventional, challenging nature would not only knock everyone on their ass, but secretly, selfishly, I hoped no one else would dig it.
I knew there’d been a recent wave of music critics who, having witnessed Panda Bear’s current live show, offered negative sentiments concerning the length of new songs, ill-suited outdoor venues, etc. But as soon as Lennox lays down his finger, triggering the opening, squelching whole-note of “Drone” (off soon-to-be released Tomboy) and the psych-freak projected visuals of a skeleton face pulsating between wavelength flashes on screen, there’s no doubt the Fox is more than a fitting theater for the experience. “Just a signal in my head,” Lennox sings out, revealing an unexpected transition into his stutter-stop rendition of “Daily Routine” — a personal favorite off AC’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Teasing out each individual syllable on Person Pitch favorites like “Ponytail” and “Comfy In Nautica,” Lennox demonstrates an even more refined vocal performance than I had expected. Not only vocally innovative, it’s wonderful to see him playing guitar again on several new songs. Amid hip-hop grooves, “Surfer Hymn’s” four-on-the-floor pounding, and “Last Night at the Jetty’s” clapped march, Lennox strums a propulsive, murky rhythm on the outstanding “Tomboy” title track. All the while, projected visions of little children dancing, sharks, explosions, and 70s porn — yes, even sex on a roller coaster — supplement any moments that lacked momentum.
After the swaying, sentimental closer “You Can Count on Me,” I half-expect the surrounding audience to be baffled by what I consider an incredibly brilliant yet assuredly challenging performance. Instead, the crowd appears to have enjoyed everything as much, if not more, than myself. When Lennox is finally coaxed into performing an encore — probably the chillest and least-showy encore I’ve ever witnessed, complete with the reoccurring skeleton visual — I realize: just who the hell do I think I am? Sure, many of these fans aren’t the folk I’d want to be around for more than an hour — well, the panda-hatters, beer-spillers, and Sigma Fi’s might be squeezing that down to about five minutes — but, if the music makes them happy, what’s the big deal? Hopefully, we’re all just learning to stretch our ears anyhow. And, to steal an expression concerning bros, give me the space I need, and you may find that we’re alright.