20 May 2009: The Bell House Brooklyn, NY
In this year of Big Releases, you can have your Springsteens, your U2’s, your Green Days, and your Eminems; keep your Animal Collectives, your Decemberists, your Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and, yes, though it pains me to say, your Dylans. As we approach the halfway point, I’ll take Elvis Perkins in Dearland as the frontrunner for Album of the Year.
For the uninitiated—and from what I’ve been able to gather—Elvis Perkins is the musician, Dearland the name of his band, and Elvis Perkins in Dearland the record, Perkins’ second.
In an email, I once described Perkins as “part Andrew Bird, part Arcade Fire, part Rufus Wainwright, part Leonard Cohen, part Dylan, and all good”, but even this catchall fails to account for his periodic spurts of beer-hall charm. iTunes, never known for its refined categorizations, lists Elvis Perkins in Dearland as “Rock”, which means only that it features guitars, bass, and drums, a claim that would hold up in court though it’s hardly illuminating. “Singer-songwriter” is closer to the mark, but even that connotes a wistful self-importance that is mercifully lacking here.
No matter where he fits—or how artificial the attempt—he writes songs that surprise, which is good enough for me.
Perkins has toured extensively since 2006, taking periodic time off, presumably, to record an album and then getting right back at it. The latest leg of his wide-reaching American tour found him in Brooklyn at the Bell House on May 20th.
Perkins’ past trips to New York have taken him to such substantial venues as the Bowery Ballroom, the Mercury Lounge, Joe’s Pub, the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and Terminal 5, so his appearance at a location that also has on the docket an amateur ping-pong tournament and a show by Harry and the Potters (with special guests the Remus Lupins and the Whomping Willows) was surprising. The Bell House, however, proved to be the perfect location for Perkins, as they both, for now, are flying under the radar.
Located a short walk from the restaurants and bars of Park Slope, the Bell House is an oasis among a desert of warehouses. The only indication that you’re in the right place is a gathering of would-be concertgoers spilling onto the street before show time, and I, for one, made a mental note to avoid loitering after the show ended, just in case the streets ended up being as inhospitable as they looked.
But the inside of the Bell House dazzles. Somehow it is both spacious and intimate, with even an allegedly sold-out show still allowing for elbow room and a clear view of the stage from all angles. The back wall, blooming with wallflowers, is still no farther back than Row M at Radio City.
You don’t have to dig too deeply into Perkins’ bio to learn that he’s an orphan. His father, Anthony Perkins, died from HIV-related complication in 1992; his mother, the photographer Berry Berenson, was on American Airlines Flight 11 on 9/11. Given these twin tragedies, it’s no surprise that sadness permeates even the titles of several of his songs, titles like “It’s a Sad World After All”, from his first record, Ash Wednesday, and “Send My Fond Regards to Lonelyville”, a standout track from his most recent effort.
So opening the Brooklyn show with a solo, acoustic rendition of “123 Goodbye” ran the risk of casting a pall over the entire night. “123 goodbye”, he begins. “I love you more in death / Than I ever could in life”. Not the most festive way to start the night, I agree, but it was one that ultimately smacked more of confidence than self-pity. Beginning in such an unorthodox way, Perkins demonstrated his faith in both his songs and his audience, who, judging by their enthusiastic response, were with him from the start.
(Another indication that he was among friends: The guy behind me in the Will Call line was on his cell. “Oh, hello Elvis”, he said. “I’m in line for your show”.)
The rest of the band joined Perkins for the second number, “I Heard Your Voice in Dresden”, a toe-tapping fan favorite, which would have brought us to our feet if we weren’t standing already. But the night didn’t hit its stride until “Hey”, which, never mind the toe-tapping, is a foot-stomper that shows Elvis Perkins in Dearland at their best.
During “Hey”, the drummer un-tethered himself from his kit, suspended a single drum from his shoulders, and proceeded to beat the shit out of said drum while he marched across the stage and the rest of the band rose to the challenge of that relentless beat. The lyrics to “Hey” are mysterious to the point of being obtuse (“I don’t care if you dream out loud / Fix your hair a fallout cloud”), but that’s OK, as they really just serve the song’s overriding sense of exuberance, an exuberance that boils over when the horns eventually blow your hair back.
The only problem with the current incarnation of Elvis Perkins in Dearland live is that these moments are so big and so satisfying that the rest of the night pales in comparison. This is a shame because such songs as “Hours Last Stand” and “I’ll Be Arriving” are as commanding live as they are on the album, and the non-Dearland songs are well chosen (“While You Were Sleeping”, which opens his debut album for example, is clearly a keeper).
But the night is spent quietly enjoying the faithful renditions of the album’s slower- and mid-tempo fare while all the while waiting for the few choice songs that allow the band to let loose, which is why there was no suspense—none—when he left the stage ahead of the encore. For, you see, he hadn’t played “Doomsday” yet.
“Doomsday” is the song that I originally heard that made me want to hear more. Its appeal is located in part in the discontinuity between its first 30 seconds and the three minutes that follow. At that 30-second mark, what could be a dirge morphs into a celebration, the title now more about resistance than fear: “I don’t plan to die / Nor should you plan to die”, he bellows as the horns, again, swell.
A song like “Doomsday” is the reason why encores exist, and Perkins and the band took full advantage. There was a bit of the ol’ tent revival in those closing moments, with Perkins leading 500 of his closest friends in a sing-along, and those fists pumping with the time looking not too unlike arms extended skyward.
It was an appropriate send-off for an artist whose career is clearly on the way up.
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