The Dodos at Music Hall of Williamsburg
Based on what I’d heard of their music, I expected the Dodos to be another passive, achy but indifferent, semi-polished indie band. Perhaps this is because I’d mostly listened to Time to Die, their latest album, produced by Phil Ek, who has also worked with the Shins. An article in the Chicago Tribune said that lead singer and guitarist Meric Long hoped Ek wouldn’t make their album too polished, but reviews indicated that some of the band’s original free-spirited, experimental musicality got ironed out in the studio.
However, at The Music Hall of Williamsburg on 13 October, the band was re-wrinkled, earnest, and seemingly unaware of norms, musical or otherwise. The performance proved just how much goes on in a production studio, and also how flexible the Dodos are. I was impressed at how seamlessly they could change their sound. For the band, every song is a mini-puzzle, and once it is completed, it has little influence on the next activity.
The three band members stood far apart on the stage, like points on a broad isosceles triangle. Normally I wouldn’t take too much note of a band’s geometric formations, but in the case of the Dodos, their physical distance and distinction is representative of their history as a band, and translated into the performance they gave. The band consists of Long, drummer Logan Kroeber and new member Keaton Synder, who plays the electric vibraphone on Time to Die and on this tour. Since the band was originally formed to place an emphasis on drumming, Long and Kroeber were downstage, with Synder upstage center. He wore a tee-shirt and seemed not quite to notice that he was onstage at all, although his playing added an elegant layer to the music, providing nuanced texture while the other two band members seemed determined to rock off into their own worlds, descending into long, repetitive jam sessions.
Long and Kroeber joined together in San Francisco in order to create something with disparate influences (Long was a singer/songwriter interested in African drumming, while Kroeber came from a heavy metal background) and on stage, what they shared was a passion for music, but never quite gave the impression that their experience was the same. They played simultaneously, but not together. As a result, the show was certainly interesting, entertaining and even aesthetically pleasurable. However, the band’s eclectic vibe failed to engage the crowd.
Long thrashed around his jet black page-boy bowl cut and played his guitar like he was in a rubix cube competition, and Kroeber’s drums were wild, emphatic and exacting, but the audience barely swayed. Perhaps the crowd wasn’t quick enough to follow the changing beats and genres. The show almost seemed like a Russian doll; a show within a show within a show. Not only did each band member seem to be in his own world, but every time Long brought out a new guitar, the musical themes changed enough to make it feel like three separate sets, or movements in an orchestral piece.
If anything, the band, and Long in particular, seemed comfortable weaving in and out of varied rhythms. Of course, it was Long’s guitar playing that guided the sentiment; Kroeber remained a constant on the drums, demonstrating an extraordinary ability that was, despite being a focal point of the music, not entirely attention grabbing. Long’s performance, musically and physically, was splashy. Kroeber was focused and devotional.
The two are clearly in a musically symbiotic relationship in which Kroeber’s unfaltering skill allows Long to be adventurous, but at times erratic. Still, the crowd, in its attempt to meld with the band, followed the drum beat, making it seem almost like Long was unaware of his audience. At times he played facing sideways or backward, and the more he turned away from his audience, the more his enthusiasm grew.
This alienation was even more apparent since the pace and volume of songs grew from beginning to end in a steady arc. Thus, as the band grew more comfortable and enthused, the crowd became more observant and less participatory. That said, if not vibrant (it was a Tuesday night, after all), the crowd was indubitably pleased, proving the strength and longevity of Long and Kroeber’s collaborative experiment.