My first reaction to hearing that Deerhunter was opening for Spoon on its tour for Transference was “Ahhhhhhhh! AHHHHHHHH! Spoon AND Deerhunter!?! Tickets! Need tickets!” I instantly handed over the cash to see them in Boston – fitting considering my history of catching some other amazing double bills there, such as The New Pornographers with Belle & Sebastian and Feist with Broken Social Scene.
The venue was the new House of Blues, formerly the Avalon, in the literal shadow of Fenway Park on Lansdowne Street.
Openers The Strange Boys kicked off the evening with a post-punk-meets-rockabilly sound. Lead singer Ryan Sambol’s voice was a low-energy combination of young Bob Dylan and Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which is to say, it wasn’t good. However, the band did provide an entertaining story about “the real Spoon,” from the previous tour stop at Radio City Music Hall. Sambol explained that the group amassed a handful of parking tickets from prior New York City shows. “We thought: ‘They’ll never get us.’” Well, the city got ’em, towing their van and slapping them with a whopping impound fee of $900.
Spoon to the rescue. Sambol told the crowd to show the headliners some love for picking up the tab and emancipating the van for their tourmates from Austin.
When Bradford Cox and his crew emerged, the club was still well short of capacity – a fact I could not believe. When gushing about the show to friends beforehand, my refrain was “I love Spoon, but I think I’m more excited to see Deerhunter.” Bradford engaged the crowd right away, cracking jokes, chatting, declaring his love for Boston and improvising a dreamy little song about the cold weather. “Cold weather … keeps us together … like we are tethered … ” I wondered what side of the group we’d see – hard and driving, soft and trippy, or pop-song craftsmen. The answer was all three, which is exactly what makes Deerhunter great. Bradford and Co. were equally adept mashing out rockers like Fluorescent Grey’s “Wash Off,” or cooing delicate pieces like Microcastle’s title track. Interspersed throughout the set were myriad effects, some turning whatever Bradford uttered into a sound best described as a soaring choir of angels on LSD, others imbuing his guitar with a life of its own as he continuously toyed with dissonant tones and ample feedback.
The highlight was unquestionably a raucous version of “Nothing Ever Happened.” The dominant bass line and opening riff drew a cheer from the crowd, and the crashing chorus had Spoon fans in crowd looking at each other, thinking, “I don’t know this band, but I’m getting their album as soon as I get home.” Bradford pushed the song even higher in its coda, hitting gorgeous high notes in his solo with a finger-tapping technique. “Since when is Bradford Cox a guitar god?” I asked myself, with a stupefied grin on my face. With Ted Williams’ turf right outside the club, just over the Green Monster in left field, Bradford’s passionate performance made me think indie rock has its own Splendid Splinter to anoint.
When they wrapped up their set, the word on everyone’s tongue was “more.” It felt downright cruel to give us a taste then take it away, but they did have to make time for the main performance. Oh, right! Spoon is playing now! The headliner!
One thing separated Spoon from Deerhunter right away: image. About 30 minutes was spent between sets, adorning the stage with light panels and strings of bulbs hanging over amps and mike stands. When the band stepped on stage, Britt Daniel very much looked the part of a rock star – cropped leather jacket, designer pants with weird stripes on the sides, and a gorgeous, mussy mop of blond hair that either hadn’t been touched since rolling out of bed, or was fussed over for a solid hour to appear so. I’d say the smart money is on the latter. But these things ceased to matter as the band started off with “Before Destruction” and “Nobody Gets Me But You,” the first and last songs from their current record, Transference.
The initial songs’ halting rhythms didn’t allow the crowd to go nuts right away, but the groove of “Rhthm & Soul” and the near-bubblegum approach to the danceable “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” pulled everyone in. Afterward, there was a quick detour to Kill the Moonlight’s soothing farewell track “Vittorio E,” before ripping into the chorus of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga’s “Don’t Make Me A Target,” and making heads bob again.
Gimme Fiction leadoff, “The Beast And Dragon, Adored,” was the show’s apex. I consider it the band’s best song. If making moving music is based upon tension and release, which I believe it is, then this blows away the rest of the group’s canon. The verse is a simple, yet effective walk from perfect 4th, to diminished 5th, to perfect 5th, and back again. The diminished 5th (aka tritone or Devil in Music) provides the tension. When the major chords of the chorus finally kick in, it’s a revelation. As one might expect, hearing and seeing this unfold live added even more power. The set gained in energy as it neared its close with more up-tempo dance-friendly numbers, “I Summon You,” “Trouble Come Running,” and fan favorite “The Underdog.” “Trouble” earned the prize for loudest song of the night, and while the piano had to substitute for the horn section for “The Underdog,” it remained exceedingly fun.
During the show I kept wondering about the headline spot vs. the opening spot. It seemed odd to confine a band of Deerhunter’s caliber to the warm-up set. Ultimately, headlining is about money. Whoever can pack the most bodies in the building is going to get the lead spot. Examining the tale of the tape for these two bands, though, it’s hard to say which is more deserving. Spoon are veterans at this point — indie stalwarts with some decent mainstream success and a catalogue of great albums cementing their legacy. Have you ever heard a bad Spoon album? You haven’t, because there isn’t one. You know what you’re going to get with Spoon – gorgeous, polished pop songs.
Deerhunter, on the other hand, are just hitting their prime. There’s an energy and an unpredictability that bands only have when they’re young and still enthusiastically exploring their sound. For lack of a better word, Bradford Cox and Deerhunter are still dangerous. With them, you don’t know what you’re going to get, and that’s what makes their performance exciting.
So, who should’ve had the top spot? It’s a tough call – one that comes down to personal preference more than anything else. For me, it’s a toss-up. They’re great for their own reasons, and more than anything I’m just happy I got to see them both in one night.