“We’ve only got two more songs and then we have to go because there’s going to be a dance party,” explains Beach House guitarist Alex Scally. “This isn’t the dance party,” he adds after a deadpan pause. Of course, he’s stating the obvious. You can’t really dance to Beach House’s gauzy, autumnal pop. Yet, here they are, the Baltimore-based duo—augmented on this tour by a live drummer—playing a venue better known for banging jams and DJ sets.
There’s an otherworldly feel to Beach House that presupposes that they probably shouldn’t be seen in such an environment. Indeed, something about Scally and Victoria Legrand’s slight, sepia-tinged sound suggests it might not transfer well to the live environment at all. With their records it’s easy to lie down, close your eyes, and let their amalgamation of Galaxy 500 and Mazzy Star wash over you. It’s hard to do that in a club, especially one like the Barbary.
3 Apr 2008: The Barbary Philadelphia, PA
While the sun is still setting outside—this is an all-ages show with doors at 6:30pm—the club is dank and dark and more suited to its nocturnal trade in turntables. A large, rotating disco ball hangs from the center of the ceiling, giving it a definitive nightclub aura. Befitting the all-ages aspect of the show, the bar is bare. The taps are covered by a welder’s mask and the liquor has been replaced by bottles of VitaminWater. Emphasizing this fact, a child no older than eight wanders past and leans against the sound booth, surveying the scene as if he owns the place.
The place in question is packed. When Beach House take the stage, I can only assume it’s them, as I can’t actually see past the heads that protrude in front of me. The show is sold-out, and the low-lying nature of the stage means that only the tallest and closest have a decent vantage point. The thing is, though, you don’t really need to see Beach House to “see” them. Their sound is a ghostly apparition that needs no grounding. I do catch glimpses, though. It seems, via my strained sight lines, that Scally and Legrand are both dressed in matching white outfits: a suit and a dress, respectively. Multicolored lights (mainly purples and greens) reflect off of them, adding an ethereal overtone to their otherworldly aura. I can see Legrand’s hair flipping back and forth as she plays the organ but cannot see the actual instrument, which wheezes and churns, producing a churchly, hymnal effect. On occasion, Scally spins into view. His guitar playing is delicate and deliberate, veering from reverb-laden lead lines to perfectly accentuated slide guitar.
Speaking of reverb, Beach House likes it. A lot. Even the tambourine on their cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Some Things Last a Long Time” is awash with it. At first I assume that the drums, as on their records, are pre-programmed and mechanical. They’re not. I have no reason to believe otherwise, because the sweep of percussion that signifies the start of “Wedding Bell,” which opens the show, is played with a robotic precision. Eventually I notice a head and a hand at the back of the stage, but it’s only when I view a photograph of the show the next day that I see the ‘live’ drummer.
Surprisingly, the sound of their album transfers itself seamlessly to the live environment. Some songs—the reverb-laden “Master of None” and the hymnal-driven dirge of “Heart of Chambers”—even surpass their recorded counterparts. Live, they are powerful, more forceful by far. The delicate nature of their albums is replaced by an almost shoegazey wash of sound. Best of all are Legrand’s vocals, which range from the floating, ethereal emotiveness of Julee Cruise, to the forceful grandeur of Edith Piaf, to the cold detachment of Nico. While the first few tracks suffer slightly due to the venue’s bass-heavy sound system, everything comes together on the glistening and glissading “Gila”, the band’s most immediate and accessible song.
Few others are as accessible as this one, though. Like most of their music, which is slightly detached, unhinged, and unhooked, the band initially comes across as impersonal. As soon as the applause subsides, the drums kick in again. By the end of the show, however, they break down the fourth wall, and the goodwill flows. “This is a very loving show,” exclaims Legrand, prior to their final song (which unfortunately happens to be the painfully plodding “Astronaut”). She even informs us that her parents and sister are in attendance, before adding: “I love my family.”
I hope she was able to secure them a good spot. Then again, my disadvantaged position didn’t distract from the quality of the show. Sure, as on record, the songs melded together, but like a mountain range, the inherent sameness of it all didn’t distract from the pockets of individual beauty. In retrospect, I’m kind of glad I couldn’t see them. Some music doesn’t need a focal point. Illusion has always been a part of popular music; for all I know the band could have been levitating up there—their celestial-sounding music definitely seems to.