A New York Times review of a 2007 Deerhunter show asked, “How many people want to watch a man eat a microphone? How big a venue can Deerhunter sell out? And how many people will last till the end?” Using Deerhunter’s sold out show at Webster Hall on September 18 as a template, the answers to these questions are (In the order posed): plenty; one that can hold 1,500 people; and nearly each ticket-buyer who sold the venue out. The Times reviewer’s last question is a slightly more complex one, though. Deerhunter has been going for 12 years now and still has a long way to go. It’s reasonably safe to say that it will go down as one of the greatest indie bands of the aughts; but in the meantime and performance-wise, things have come slightly full circle, or as full circle as they can when a band as adventurous as Deerhunter is involved.
When Deerhunter released its breakthrough, Cryptograms, in 2007, the sometimes heavy, sometimes swooning album was accompanied early on by a live show that ensured gigs by the band’s staid indie rocker peers would be comparatively as fun as people-watching in a desert. Karen O seemed to have passed the theatricality torch to Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, who capitalized on his grotesque appearance by wearing thrift shop dresses, smearing fake blood on his face, and doing the microphone-eating thing that is common of showier performers, but not seen as much in indie rock. It was like a mental patient had broken into a show by one of those aforementioned restrained indie bands and given the audience a badly-needed sense of danger along with a run for their money.
Even as live sets grew calmer, and Cox took to wearing the decorous flannels and slacks of many 20-something males, Deerhunter remained a cut above the rest by composing really, really great albums. 2008’s Microcastle and Weird Era Cont., and 2010’s Halcyon Digest—not to mention EPs like Fluorescent Grey and Rainwater Cassette Exchange—were all remarkable for their dreamy tunefulness, emotional heft, and timeless allure. The band’s most recent release, 2013’s Monomania, while commendable for its avant garage aesthetic, might be Deerhunter’s most notably divisive effort. At times overly corrosive and occasionally tedious, Monomania is the only time Deerhunter has even come close to flirting with mediocrity. Still, Cox and co. hardly let a performance of the title track for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon go to waste. Wearing a black wig and messy lipstick to allegedly represent his Monomania-era alter-ego, Connie Lungpin, and displaying two bandaged fingers to symbolize a recent accident suffered by his father, Cox’s stagecraft appeared to be back in full force. His choice to leave the stage and get in an elevator before the rest of Deerhunter had finished playing disconcerted enough people for music site Pigeons & Planes to compile a list of Internet-dwellers who were unsettled by the performance . While Monomania the album may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, this era’s live shows hinted at being extraordinary, Deerhunter’s Webster Hall set being a fine case.
Beginning with a Cox-only rendition of Halcyon Digest’s wistful “Sailing”, things quickly progressed to the cacophonous and all-encompassing; when the rest of the band took the stage, the Cryptograms twofer of “Cryptograms” and “Lake Somerset” melded into one another and produced a nearly 15-minute squall of sound. “Desire Lines”, the first of two songs sung by guitarist Lockett Pundt, coaxed the set back into more melodious territory, a trend that continued for a large portion of the set. Monomania material was light, with Microcastle favorites like “Little Kids” and “Never Stops”, and the odd Cryptograms track like the heavily reworked “Spring Hall Convert”, taking precedent. Not surprisingly, Cox’s showiest moments came when those Monomania tracks were brought out, most noticeably with his envious double-fisting of maracas on “T.H.M”. Cox shouted and screamed often, but his vocals were balanced enough that this never seemed showy or unnecessary.
For the most part, the night’s most intrusive aspect was the stage lighting. Although the shocking strobes were mostly an asset to Deerhunter’s set, they ultimately proved more aggressive than any theatrics on display or noise interludes, although the super-extended outro to “Nothing Ever Happened” was a worthy competitor. When Deerhunter closed out the night with Monomania’s title track, Cox positioned himself like an elongated gargoyle overlooking his pedals and contemplated passing his stunning Teisco Del-Rey EV-2 into the audience. Deerhunter will one day pass the torch to another group of rockers with that rare balance of charisma and craft, but Deerhunter reigns in the meantime.