Grizzly Bear with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Malia Hall

For the first portion, Joana Carneiro conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic though three classical pieces that prefaced and weirdly mirrored Grizzly Bear’s subsequent sweeping and hauntingly beautiful performance.

Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

City: Los Angeles
Venue: Walt Disney Concert Hall
Date: 2008-03-01

As ticket sales dwindle across the country, classical establishments are trying to incorporate alternative genres into their programs in an attempt to reach out to new audiences. With the Hollywood Bowl as an accessible backdrop, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is leading the trend: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Gnarls Barkley, and Devendra Banhart are all slated to perform with them this summer.

It’s an intriguing combination, and one that is turning out to be successful. Institutions such as the Metropolitan Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic have sky-high ticket prices, a dress code, and a very specific (if unspoken) audience etiquette. At the other end of the spectrum, you have these raucous traveling gypsies, who play where they can and perform in the midst of glorious licentiousness. Their audiences tend to stand the whole time and have a reputation for smoking, drinking, and cussing uninhibitedly. But now these groundlings are being lured into unfamiliar territory with cushioned seating and fancy playbills.

As part of this strange new trend -- and following in the footsteps of Bright Eyes and the Decemberists before them -- folk-inflected indie rockers Grizzly Bear performed with the LA Philharmonic at the Philharmonic’s invitation. But instead of the orchestra serving as the band’s backing, as might be expected, they opened for the group. And while the two did not actually perform together, the Philharmonic’s classical selections helped preface the ambient tones that Grizzly Bear are known for. Touching on the similarities shared by the two disparate ensembles, Grizzly Bear guitarist Daniel Rossen explained: “It seemed like it was appropriate, because our records have a certain orchestral sweep to them...the director of the Phil listened to our records and we sort of talked about -- not pieces that inspired us, but things that we’ve liked and pieces we didn’t know but sounded interesting, like it would fit the mood of what we do.”

The mood of Grizzly Bear is one of experimentation and exploration that focuses on the importance of how music “reads” and “feels.” Their sweeping layers of woodwinds, electronics, and immaculate vocals create a hauntingly beautiful effect that began with their debut album Horn of Plenty. It’s a sound they perfected on the follow-up, Yellow House, which was hailed by many as one of the best albums of 2006. What began with Ed Droste has now evolved into a fully-fledged band, with Christopher Bear on drums, Chris Taylor on bass, woodwinds, and electronics, and Rossen contributing guitar and vocals. Their music is fragile and moving, and, when placed inside the grand confines of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, their melodies soared.

For the first portion, the adorable Joana Carneiro conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic though “Ritirata notturna di Madrid” by Luigi Boccherini, “Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten, and closed with Stravinsky’s “Suite (1919)” from The Firebird, all of which mirrored Grizzly Bear’s performance in provocative ways. Each piece created something larger than life with long swells of dissonance and chilling lines that swirled around the auditorium. With the audience composed almost entirely of Hollywood “indie” types who were more likely drawn to this classical institution for Grizzly Bear than for Luigi Boccherini, the classical segment’s effect was unusually immediate.

Stravinsky’s “Suite (1919)” invoked the most vocal audience reaction. Going against “proper” classical etiquette, one concert patron screamed “Fuck yeah!” in between movements. And in this enormous and marvelously erected venue, those two little words reached every seat. The man’s expletive received some laughs, but the music was demanding, emotional, and, notwithstanding his inelegant shout, eloquent. Following this outburst, during another dramatic pause, the audience began cheering loudly. And as Carneiro crouched down to cue in the lower strings, she turned to the roaring audience and gave a small nod, as if to say: “I couldn’t agree more. We rock.”

The Phil’s thrilling performance injected excitement into the air, and the closing Stravinsky number set the scene perfectly for Grizzly Bear. The band stepped onto the large and intimidating stage armed with their mosaic of instruments, and from the first notes of the opening selection, “Easier”, it was obvious that these musicians were born for live performance. With a set list that included “Knife”, “Marla”, “Deep Blue Sea”, “Alligator”, and their latest track, “While You Wait for the Others”, they commanded the stage from beginning to end.

Witnessing these four mini-orchestras at work was enchanting. Each member alternated instruments, juggled several different sounds, and still managed to harmonize perfectly. For Droste’s vocals, the vastness of the concert hall seemed insignificant. His voice dripped with innocence and ascended through to the back row of the highest tier. Visually, the most entertaining was Taylor, who fluctuated abruptly from crouching low to record a flute melody, to jerking upright so he could load loops with his clarinet. In later tracks, he added in the accordion and his trusty bass, and even created a cat-in-heat-like vocal wail for the song “Knife”. Standing on tiptoes, mouth impossibly wide open, he surged into the microphone and then poignantly faded away.

With their perfect harmonies, soaring voices, and sweeping melodies, it almost seemed as though the cavernous concert hall was too small for them. At one point a fan screamed out “I love you”; he spoke for us all. As with the reaction during Stravinsky, it was difficult to be consumed by music this moving and not scream out adorations. After all, each of these men is an orchestra in his own right. The most distinguished of philharmonics would be lucky to share the same stage with Grizzly Bear.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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