I am unaware of any band these days that is constantly pushing themselves creatively as much as Animal Collective.
It is about 40 minutes into the set when the shark’s head appears above the waves. Animal Collective, playing their first show in their adopted home of Brooklyn since the release of the critically acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion, is performing underwater this evening. The set design, conceived by the sister of lead singer Avey Tare, consists of foam and paper cut and painted into shifting blue waves. Lights criss cross the stage as a pixilated fish slowly drifts from the right side of the screen to the left, giving the impression that it is swimming through the ocean. During an improv jam 40 minutes later, a stage hand rolls out a 10-foot-tall great white shark with open jaws, sharp teeth exposed and a blood red tongue hanging from its mouth as the paper waves bounce up and down around it. Though I become pretty excited at the possibility of hearing Animal Collective’s take on John Williams’ famous Jaws theme, it never arrives though I am sure few people leave Brooklyn’s version of Central Park feeling disappointed this evening.
Though just until recently I had the pleasure of calling Brooklyn home for the past three years, I had never attended a show at the Prospect Park band shell. The grounds are much more enormous than I anticipate and there are well over 5,000 people in attendance tonight -- by far the largest crowd I have seen the band play before. The main pit area is packed to the gills with a heavy hipster presence, as Animal Collective’s weird brand of freak electronic pop has strangely become the flavor of the week. Dressed in a variety of ironic and vintage t-shirts, tight jeans and eccentric sunglasses, this evening seems more of a social event than a concert. Ah, summer in Brooklyn -- where half the masses dress like it’s a chilly October day and the majority too self-conscious to ever let on that they enjoy anything. But once Avey, Panda Bear and Geologist take their place on the stage, the crowd erupts into a loud ovation not concerned about appearances but only for what unexpected treats lay in store for them.
The band slowly strums into the opening of a new, unreleased song called “What Would I Want Sky?” and half the crowd sparks one of many smuggled joints. The song starts off in a slow lull, as a ghostly snare trickles behind pulsating synths before Panda Bear and Avey Tare lay down their vocals. Long known to work through new material on their tour rather than promoting stuff from their latest release, half the crowd seems quickly disinterested once they can’t place the tune and a lot of audible chitchat takes place in various pockets of the pit area.
Tonight, Avey Tare looks like an eight-year-old boy in the midst of his summer vacation. Dressed in a t-shirt, cargo pants and a rainbow baseball cap that he wears backwards, there is nobody I enjoy watching perform as much as Avey. His talent and vocal range apparent but it is his stage presence that lends such an addition to the band’s performance. He looks like a child monkeying around with his older brother’s instruments and it is endearing (and a rare opportunity these days) to see him with a guitar, playing with both a novice’s enthusiasm and determined focus.
“My Girls” is a surprise song this evening and I am shocked to hear it played so early in the setlist. Certainly the band’s most popular and accessible song, the tune has not lost any of it’s heart because of over exposure and I can only assume that the band still maintains a fondness for the song rather than a desire to appease many of those in attendance tonight only familiar with their latest record.
The set covers a diverse cross section of their discography. “Summertime Clothes” heavy dub bass got the party going while the frantic energy and the quirkiness of the didgeridoo in “Lion in a Coma” put smiles on everyone’s face. But the highlight of the evening comes during “Fireworks”. The track has since grown to be a fan favorite during their live shows and the band continues to paint the song in different colors every time it is performed. I caught a show a couple years back where in the middle of the song the guys opted to segue into an abbreviated version of an older track called “Essplode” and was hoping that they would do so again this evening.
Once they veered into a different direction during this I find myself initially disappointed before closing my eyes and opening up my ears. And here lies the required patience of an Animal Collective show. A listener needs to walk into the show remembering it is a sort of improvisational art showcase. The lights, the sounds, the visuals -- they all play a part and form an experience. You can’t sit around waiting for a hook that may be 20 minutes down the road (or not show up at all), so much as slowly let your guard down to join the rhythm deeply buried in the layers of their sound. If you listen closely enough, you start to pick up its pulse. Their music has a natural biorhythm. Similar to a crew team, the band initially starts off in the same direction but it is once they start to work in synch that the intensity truly begins to build.
The improv jam goes into three or four different directions before they find their stride and I am completely captivated by some of the most original and beautiful music I have ever heard. At one point Panda begins manically chanting into his microphone while the band’s sound engulfs his voice and they bust back into the closing bars of “Fireworks” to massive applause.
And what can I say about Panda Bear? Throughout the evening, he works his boards with Zen-like focus, adding additional accompaniment to Geologist’s sound mix. Yet it is his drumming that leaves the largest impression on me. In an interview with Variety from earlier this year, Panda expressed his love of the drums, explaining: “There's something about the physicality of that process, especially if you play one rhythm for a half an hour or so. It becomes sort of a trance, a meditation, and I really like that.”
This man lives in the zone when he is on the stage. As the set progresses, he sweats so much that his lithe figure looks like a skeleton inside his oversized t-shirt and my motherly instincts take hold and I worry he isn’t eating enough. Noah Lennox is not a man when he plays the drums; he is a muscle. I have never seen a musician perform with such focus and watching Panda play is nothing short of hypnotic.
The band appropriately opts to close their regular set with Panda’s song “Brothersport”, a track written for his grieving brother after their father’s passing. “Open up your throat," Panda commands as his audience before him screams his brother’s name in support: “Matttttt!” Walking out of the venue, I am speechless. I had never seen a show that explored such unchartered sonic territory in their improv jams and I am unaware of any band these days that is constantly pushing themselves creatively as much as Animal Collective. Just as the world waited with baited breath to see how Radiohead would follow up OK Computer, I am at a loss as to which direction these guys will take next but more than content to take the journey with them.