On the evening after the election, Dan Deacon came to Chicago. His timing seemed fitting, given the celebratory nature of his music and the reflective, more politically directed tone of his latest album, America. After months of dread, pandering and men in ties saying horrible, horrible things, it was all over and the good guys had won. This was a night to finally go out and celebrate.
Deacon’s shows have always been more than just concerts. Although the mixture of pounding, joyous polyrhythms and day-glo synthesizers are positively liberating when experienced in-person, they’re really only the beginning of the event. What Deacon tries to do is make going to the show a shared musical and interpersonal experience involving himself and everyone in the room. Also, there’s dancing. Lots of dancing.
Upon arrival I was disappointed to discover that I’d missed the first opener, Alan Resnick (although it must be said that his set elicited comments for the rest of the night that indicated it was memorably confrontational). I did, however catch Chester Endersby Gwazda whose live set of tuneful, guitar jams sounded nothing like inventively-produced studio creations on his bandcamp page. They were well-received however, despite a shortened set, plagued by multiple broken strings. Any disappointment was short-lived as Height With Friends followed quickly. Normally when I discover that a band will be playing a mixture of funk, hip-hop and stoner metal, my ears start bleeding preemptively but these guys did it and it didn’t suck. Not only didn’t it suck, it was actually a lot of fun. Taking the goofiest, most ridiculous aspects of all those genres, combing them with impishly energetic musicianship and lyrics delivered with tongue-in-cheek solemnity, they quickly won over the crowd.
As the crowd filled in and people milled around and chattedd idly, unbeknownst to them, the Dan Deacon performance had already started. As the show approached the between-set music became increasingly prominent and increasingly well-chosen. R. Kelly’s “Ignition” remix got the braver souls singing quietly along to the chorus and “Yakkity-Yak” loosened people up even more but when “Bohemian Rhapsody” started playing, everyone took notice. With both the houselights and the volume up, people started looking around, grinning sheepishly and then, yes, singing along. By the time the song was winding down and the headliner took the stage, almost the entire room had joined in and everyone was feeling good. It was as if Deacon was reminding the room of the evening’s most important rule – it’s OK to look silly, as long as you’re having fun.
After the singalong, Deacon went a step further in pushing people outside of their comfort zone and engaged in the experience by having the whole audience crouch down on one knee, point at a random person in the balcony and then repeat after him as he delivered a nonsensical rant about his Netflix cue. His point being made, the chubby wizard took his place at his synthesizer behind a rat’s nest of cords and proceeded to bring the house down. Waves of bass, rump-shaking beats and sheets of sizzling electronic fuzz descended on the crowd, who had no choice but to start dancing like there was no tomorrow. His new songs, which sounded good on wax, absolutely took off live, particularly the meaty electronica of “Crash Jam” and the hyperkinetic freakout “Guildford Avenue Bridge.”
It was a full sensory assault, with an impressive light show and video screen behind the stage adding kodachrome ambience and free-associative imagery to the experience. Onstage, Deacon lived up to his preachifying last name, expounding on this and that, commanding the audience members into elaborately choreographed dance circles, creating a human line out the theater into the street and even getting the entire crowd to spin itself around a central point like a top. Impressive as his performance pop was, perhaps the most compelling moment of the evening came when he started talking about the election and the sense of relief and satisfaction that his country had made the right choice. This elicited the heartiest cheers of the night. A crowd brought together by their love of dancing somehow felt united in a larger purpose for just a second. Then it was back to the music.
Using a combination performative gimmickry, engaging humor, elaborate effects and, above all, engrossing dance music, Dan Deacon created a live experience that’s as much a celebration of the audience as the performer. Recognizing the opportunities inherent in gathering a group of like-minded people together for a common purpose, Deacon asks his audience to check a lot of social inhibitions at the door and in return creates something that lets them step outside themselves. The effect is short-lived, but it’s a nice reminder of how art and music can, however briefly, change us for the better.