[9 March 2011]
This whole The Dismemberment Plan reunion thing without any plans to record new music, well… it’s killing me. Seven years of band dismemberment and they’re playing better now than when they called it quits.
Despite a one-off charity performance in 2007, the D Plan had remained disbanded since 2003 when the creative well was deemed empty and no longer interesting. But the recent vinyl release of their now-classic 1999 album Emergency & I was cause for more than a little helpful promotion. After all, nary a finger was lifted by Interscope for the album’s initial promotion. After the label dropped them, Emergency & I went on to a delayed release by DeSoto Records, and not amidst the mainstream fanfare that was hoped for while briefly signed at Interscope. Now, with a string of East Coast tour dates, a quick jetting to Japan, a snowy road trip to Chicago, and a March appearance in Seattle thrown in, the Dismemberment Plan has so far remained good on their promise to make no other promises. They’re just reuniting to help sell some vinyl and get some fun out of it. But last week Pitchfork announced the Plan will headline the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer. Is it too much to hope for that this return to touring might become the creative spark that claws and tears and challenges them to stay? Well, then.
Playing Chicago’s Metro on Saturday February 19th, the Washington, D.C.-based quartet appeared for the first of two speedily sold-out shows, reminding themselves as much as the audience just why they started playing music in the first place, they’re damn good at what they do, and they have fun doing it. Perpetually with a gleeful smirk on his face, frontman Travis Morrison took the stage disguised with shades and a grey hoodie pulled over his head, appearing more like a member of the stage crew than the leader of a cultishly immortalized post-punk emo band existing largely as their very own genre (somewhere between Talking Heads, Fugazi, and Gladys Knight and the Pips). This is emo before emo was about painted-on teardrops and hiding behind asymmetrical haircuts.
There was a moment when Morrison moved about the stage and somebody somewhere in the crowd clapped. Only with the appearances of bassist Eric Axelson and drummer (and NASA employee) Joe Easley, who took up his drumsticks while dressed for a pick-up game in basketball shorts and an NPR t-shirt, did a wave of excited cheering slowly build throughout the audience with the realization that the advertised third opening act had been replaced by the main act. Sure, seven years and the approach of 40th birthdays might make it a little harder for some to identify the band at first glance, but the significance of age really falls to the majority of the audience, whose fresh-faced youth was spotlighted late in the show’s encore during “Ice of Boston’s” ritualistic stage siege; looking up at those standing side by side with Morrison, Axelson, and guitarist Jason Caddell, most of the fans in attendance likely had not yet graduated from the eighth grade when Emergency & I was released. Of course they would not know what the band looks like. The Plan hasn’t written new music in nearly a decade but they are playing to a whole new generation of fans. The educational sharing powers of the Internet were never more on display.
The foursome led off with Emergency & I opener “A Life of Possibilities”, an energetic record-perfect rendition that quickly set the evening’s tone and inspired enthusiastic head-nodding among the shoulder-to-shoulder attendees. The ninety-minute set list started off slow and steady with the melodic “The Face of the Earth”, “Rusty”, and “Spider in the Snow” preventing sweating away the valuable electrolytes needed for the instrumental freak-outs that would come later with “The Dismemberment Plan Gets Rich”, “Gyroscope”, and “Girl O’Clock”, all vocally and instrumentally complicated exercises displaying the band’s Spandex-tight synchronicity after all these years. They never faltered. The D Plan is like that smart slacker friend in college who did all his projects the night before they were due: making meticulous perfection look improvised and easily obtained. Peppered in dance breaks, preventing anyone from just standing still, arrived with stellar fan favorites “You Are Invited” and “What Do You Want Me to Say?”. Both attracted top-of-your-lungs audience participation and left this writer without a voice for two days.
Morrison was trading friendly banter with the fans. His job in between songs was cracking wise while deflecting intense Ecstasy-fueled love from one particular male concertgoer, whose cries of “Travis, goddammit you bastard, I love you!” finally caught the attention of the beloved singer. Acknowledgment is all that is sought from such audience outbursts which Morrison digs it all the more as it becomes fodder for his stage act.
Rounding out the set was a wild and heavily improvised (as usual) “OK, Joke’s Over” during which a double-tambourine shaking man named Jeff guested on stage while Morrison proceeded to rattle off a list of everything that’s “killing” him, from Madison, Wisconsin to French toast to the setlist, all before losing half the men in the audience momentarily with a drop-in version of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. Appropriately ending the show at the close of a six-song encore was the Emergency & I closing track, “Back and Forth”, which cued the venue to wave goodbye by putting hands in the air and waving them like they just don’t care.
Regardless of their creative non-interest in producing new music, the Dismemberment Plan will always be regarded as heroes, even if we never see them again.