Grizzly Bear: 1 June 2009 – Washington, DC

Grizzly Bear

The audience came prepared. Although the album was released just shy of a week prior to this show, I’d venture to guess that most of those singing along have had months to digest Veckatimest’s material. The first note of most songs was met with knowing applause and what I’ll call the “Grizzly Claw.” Like the Wu Tang “W” or Jay-Z’s “Roc-A-Fella Triangle,” superfans show their support with a hand signal — pawing and clawing at the air towards the stage. A fittingly twee gesture, its mock fierceness reflects the band’s paradoxically ferocious moniker. Although the band has publically lamented the early leak of their album, they must have felt encouraged by the audience’s immediately positive reaction to the new material.

The band came prepared too. Cascading guitar plucks, cavernous percussion, and choirboy harmonies. Those who criticize the perceived overuse of studio trickery would be surprised to find that the live performance captures much of the record’s sonic atmosphere. That sound! You could bathe in it. Fully realized from the first tour date, it sounds like a fantasy one million kbps rip, a lot better than that compressed garbage that the rest of us have been listening to for the last four months. (Come on, it’s the ‘00s. Plus it moved 33K units in its first week, so let’s cut the guilt trip.)

The performance covered most of the new record and safe bets from the Friend EP and Yellow House. We swooned during “Knife”, which inarguably remains Grizzly Bear’s best song. It was neat to see multi-instrumentalist and producer Chris Taylor hit those high “Woah-ooh-woah” notes in person. However, I was disappointed that he did not play the clarinet, an instrument I studied in elementary school and have since longed to see it used in rock (thanks Clinic!).

I was also disappointed to find that many of Grizzly Bear’s songs peter out after about the four-minute mark. Maybe it’s because they aren’t a jam band. Maybe it’s because their carefully constructed verses and choruses are so gorgeous that I hate to see them devolve into repetition or noisy refrains that don’t go anywhere. This is not a popular opinion, but I am reminded of the Washington Post’s David Malitz, who wrote in his dissenting review:

Veckatimest, the band’s third album, is a trudging affair. Grizzly Bear’s songs are like fancy, 500-piece jigsaw puzzles. There are the cascading harmonies, choral arrangements, specks of violin, twinkles of piano, reverb-drenched electric guitar. Except once everything interlocks and you stop to take in the final product, there’s nothing there. It’s all meandering textures. This is a band of sonic showoffs, nothing more.”

I think he’s a tad too harsh on the guys, but I think he recognizes something that almost every other prominent critic overlooks: A lot of these songs are bloated with plodding studio filler. It sure sounds brilliant on my Sennheisers, but live it’s not as much fun. I kept wishing that they would kick into gear.

When they did, it was the vocals that lighted the ignition. All four members contributed to the band’s golden-tongued vocal harmonies, which defines the group’s sound and brings apt comparisons to the Beach Boys. Always interesting, and occasionally sublime, Taylor’s falsetto and two tenors — the wavering Droste and smooth, bell-like voice of Daniel Rossen — mark the vocal interplay. The other trademark Grizzly Bear sound is the unmistakable tone of the lead guitar. Tightly wound, crunchily distorted, and imbued with rubbery reverb, the singular blend reminds me of no other band’s guitars

There are also structural patterns that one can trace throughout Grizzly Bear songs. Most of them start with quietly plucked strings, followed by heartfelt vocals. Then the soaring harmonies kick in and we’re treated to either some noodling or a loud restatement of the song’s melody, followed by some jamming and a soothing refrain. Thankfully the order of the formula is tweaked enough that the songs remain interesting. Unfortunately, in the live environment, the band doesn’t seem to take too many liberties with interpretations of their album cuts.

During the encore Grizzly Bear played their weird, uncomfortably Lynchian cover of the Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)”, and several dozen audience members began to clap along without provocation from the band. Where most frontmen would be thrilled, Droste shook his head in embarrassment, the audience cracked up, and the clapping died. Good thing, these pet sounds are best heard without impromptu accompaniment — be it audience handclaps or plodding studio filler.