Grizzly Bear, the musical emblems of Williamsburg, played a solid, nearly two hour set at the Greek Theatre last night. The quartet, boosted by a Phantom of the Opera-esque keyboardist looming in the shadows, presented a set of entirely original material with a flawless display of dynamics and musicality that most bands would have a very hard time rivaling. That seems to be why they get so much shit.
Recently New York Magazine ran a profile on Grizzly Bear that harped mostly on the financial difficulties of keeping a band afloat. To their credit, Grizzly Bear seemed to mostly dodge that topic and didn't really come off as complaining about the position they were in. Anybody who has gotten into the music business since, say, Bach, knows that the pile of money available is fairly slim and wholly unreliable.
What struck me most about the article was this: “Droste knows how his band is perceived, including by dedicated non-fans. They're occasionally charged with being prissy, tame, or 'polite' — a recent Slate review lamented that they're 'pale and incorporeal and non-punk rock.' Droste wonders, sometimes, if any of those charges have to do with his sexuality.”
As someone who has been listening to 2006's Yellow House and 2009's Veckatimest for the past two years, it wasn't until this article that I was aware that his sexuality was worthy of discussion. And knowing what I know, I still don't believe it is. And certainly not to contextualize their sound.
Rather than appearing polite or reliant upon “expensive and fastidious arrangements”, Grizzly Bear have an eerie quality that is evident in all of their songs. They write the soundtrack for a seaside town in the off-season: the bumper cars are padlocked, the wind is a persistent and maddening presence and 90% of the population has disappeared.
The band set up on stage four across, each member capable of adding a dense harmonic vocal part to the proceedings. Bassist, clarinetist, tenor saxophonist and flutist Chris Taylor hung on stage right, honking through his under-mic'ed horns and fuzzed out basslines while towering vocal presence Ed Droste worked his guitars and applause-winning autoharp. Daniel Rossen, guitarist and Rhodes twinkler, worked his small space.
This collection of instruments might imply a twee and perhaps polite sound if it weren't for drummer Christopher Bear, who pummels and thrashes behind the delicate structure with abandon. Anyone accusing this crew of lacking muscle are probably not paying enough attention.
For all the intricacies of their recorded sound, what is most impressive about Grizzly Bear is their ability to recreate it on stage with only ten hands and four voices. Instead of aiming for creative reworkings, the band reaches for the recorded sound, which is not easy. Through it all, their light show captivates.
Eighteen oversized Edison bulbs rose and fell with the sound, creating a complex dance that resembled over-stimulated jellyfish carried by the current. At one point people were clapping for the synchronized orchestration of the lights.
Aside from a tour of songs old and new, the band's most ambitious statement was to close the third song of their encore, 2009's “All We Ask,” as an acoustic number. Absorbing all of the adoration and strangely illuminated trees, the outfit stripped down to the essence of intimacy and economics, with Droste and Taylor sharing a microphone as Rossen held his acoustic guitar above his shoulder and Bear stuttered over a tom-tom and tambourine. It was a declaration of trust that didn't go unrecognized.
In any other genre, such confidence and manipulation of dynamics would be highly prized. Grizzly Bear are wrestling for that reward and it is hard to argue with the results.
Personal Bias: I first discovered Grizzly Bear on a eight-hour long continuous mixtape a friend made for me as a wedding present.
The Crowd: Youths sneaking cigarettes, guys with well-cultivated stubble and Adam Scott.
Random Notebook Dump: The guy working the cameras seemed to be having his own directorial fantasy. There was enough going on with the lighting on stage that all those multiple exposures and fadeouts weren't really necessary.
More photos below of Grizzly Bear at the Greek