Blitzen Trapper + Plants and Animals: 27 February 2009 – New York, Bowery Ballroom
It was one of those nights when the headliner legitimately got outplayed and outperformed. Which isn’t to say that Blitzen Trapper put on a bad show. It was a solid performance with their sound and set well balanced, along with all the other trimmings that one comes to expect from a band coming off their most successful year and most lauded album to date, Furr (8.5/10 on Pitchfork; #13 album of 2008 on Rolling Stone; #4 single of 2008 on Rolling Stone, if you’re keeping tally).
But the Montreal trio, Plants and Animals, was in it to win it. They played one of the most broadly satisfying sets I’ve heard from anyone in months. Its scope was large enough for each song to feel new and captivating, but consistent enough with their natural idiosyncrasies to know that it flowed from the same spring. So post punk numbers ended up sounding like jam-band musings and vice-versa.
Though no battle of the bands, they played with a feverish reckless abandon yet compelling earnestness and epic, carefully constructed, songs became filled with intuitive improvisations. Drummer Matthew Woodley was prolific and at once contemporary and old school with his traditional grip. On “Faerie Dance”, his hard beat evoked the laissez-faire groove of Sublime, as did the harmonic “la-la-la’s” in the fading chorus. Singer Warren Spicer was an amalgamation of Kurt Cobain’s dissonant melodies and blonde hair and Freddy Mercury’s flamboyant exuberance and epic vocals. The latter was particularly true because I was convinced that their song “Bye Bye Bye” was a Queen cover. It was not. But its contrapuntal chorus (“Bye bye bye”) and main lyrics (“What’s gonna happen to you”) over piano power chords was a total characterization.
With each member perspiring out of sheer intensity, they still had their heads on right and seemed genuinely unpretentious. At one point Spicer even asked, “You guys are feeling this, right?”
His question put the pressure of pleasing ephemeral tastes in perspective immediately, and the source of their uncertainty became obvious: Everyone was talking, seemingly not paying attention. But after their finale, “Bye Bye Bye”, the crowds’ roaring delight assured Plants and Animals that they, in fact, were heard and well liked.
All this made Blitzen Trapper’s task, for me, nearly impossible. The scattered sextet simply could not match the drive and flowing harmonies of Plants and Animals. Despite having twice as many band members on stage, their sound seemed empty and flat, with singer Eric Earley dominating the workload. He even took over completely for a two-song solipsism, playing “his grandma’s favorite song,” “Cocaine Blues”. Cute.
Furr’s best songs, “Black River Killer” and the title-track, were also the best received. But they were also played more or less verbatim on the album. The set was reserved and controlled in exactly the ways that Plants and Animals’ wasn’t. Instead of an exhilarating live experience, it was a reprise of their album. That album was pretty great, but when an Allman Brother’s-esque band comes up short live, it’s always a let down.