Back in June, I saw the Dirty Projectors play to a crowd of a few hundred kids at the Rufustival in Baltimore. It was the week before the release of Bitte Orca and I remarked at the time that it seemed, “a foregone conclusion that after years spent as an opening act, the band will soon graduate to headliner status,” What a difference a few months makes. Last week, I elbowed my way to the front of Washington D.C.‘s renowned Black Cat, to watch the Projectors play to a sold out crowd of 700. From the first song on, it was clear that it wasn’t just the band’s draw that had changed—rather, the Dirty Projectors had grown along with their audience.
This isn’t too surprising when you consider that while Longstreth has been performing under the Dirty Projectors name for seven years, the band’s current, six-piece lineup solidified only recently. After spending just a few short months on the road supporting Bitte Orca, the band has made astounding progress as a live unit. The songs, while still rendered exactingly, are now delivered with a newfound confidence. Most notably, the rhythm section is more muscular, keeping the guitar and vocal acrobatics grounded and providing a much-needed counterbalance. Longstreth, perhaps more comfortable with his players, seems looser onstage as well. Unafraid to explore musical tangents, he now punctuates the songs with improvised gestures, knowing that the rest of the band is right behind.
And then there are the live arrangements. Not too long ago, the band avoided playing acoustic instruments live. “It’s just tricky,” Longstreth told me, “Trying to amplify those instruments to get that level of volume.” Four months later, the band seems to have cleared this hurdle. Songs like “Two Doves” were rendered faithfully, with a delicately fingerpicked steel string providing an austere backdrop for Angel Deradoorian’s worldly vocal performance. “We’re trying to mix the electric and the acoustic on this tour,” Longstreth explained afterward. “Is it working? I’m still not convinced.”
The audience, however, was anything but skeptical. And rightfully so, given that the band’s skillful performance was underlined by a well-balanced mix. On “Stillness is the Move,” Amber Coffman’s pipes were allowed to shine (in past performances, her voice was often overpowered by the instrumentation), backed by pitch-perfect multi-part harmonies. On “Knotty Pine,” co-written by David Byrne, Coffman’s soprano soared above the song’s choppy melody to stunning effect.
Still, it’s difficult to scale up your live show without ceding at least some ground, and usually it’s the sense of intimacy that vanishes first. During “Two Doves,” Deradoorian’s rich, sorrowful voice was drowned out at the back of the room, overpowered by the incessant Thursday night chatter. This sort of disregard, while unfortunate, is unavoidable. For a band on the rise like the Dirty Projectors, it comes with the territory.