Panda Bear presides over his samplers like a priest at the pulpit, stirring the seated crowd with bits of loop-based lunacy. It's clear: this boy was born to stand before a packed set of pews.
Given the multi-layered and melodious vocal arcs on Person Pitch, it seems clear that creator Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) first honed his skill for song as a member of a high-school chamber choir. It’s appropriate then that he should find himself standing in front of a set of packed pews beneath the high-beamed ceiling of Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church. As he plays, Panda Bear presides over his samplers like a priest at the pulpit, stirring the seated crowd with inspired bits of loop-based lunacy. His re-creation of Person Pitch is not the purist pursuit; he seems to take pride in moving each song in a slightly different direction. A founding member of psychedelic folk-rock outfit Animal Collective, Panda Bear is an eclectic artist, and his solo work is more akin to dance music than anything else. A stylistic leap from his prior solo album, 2004’s Young Prayer, Person Pitch is a spliced amalgamation of sounds that incorporates a splattering of trumpets, hypnotic chants, and ecstatic easy listening approaches over a tumble of sampled beats. Repetitive rhythms bound forth like giant lint-rollers collecting sound. Polyrhythmic pounding, multi-tracked harmonies, and field recordings combine to create cacophonous, never-ending crescendos. On record, his sound is massive and orchestral, but with no actual instruments on stage, Lennox’s live solo show is more like a DJ set -- one where he attends to samplers like a doctor performing invasive surgery. Despite this pre-recorded patchwork method and the obvious electronics involved, Lennox still manages to make his songs sound organic, human. Whereas set opener “Take Pills” speeds up on record, Lennox slows it down live, tantalizing the crowd over the course of five minutes with a Valium-ized version before returning to the album’s recognizable rhythm. Many of the record’s more subdued beats are brought to the fore, while samples -- such as the ice cream truck in “Bros” -- appear earlier in the songs, adding to the ‘live’ aspect of it all. Several tunes even fade into soul or doo-wop samples before stirring back to life with click-wheel precision. It’s inspiring to see a performer make something new on stage rather than try to painstakingly recreate a record. Instead of suffocating his songs, Lennox toys with them, building the tones up to a point of explosion before pulling back and starting again. The repetitive beats don’t bore because they're continually building; it’s as if Lennox wants to see just how far he could push the cyclical envelope. Befitting the celestial surroundings, “Comfy in Nautica” is euphoric in its execution: Lennox sustains the opening flourish, filling the packed-to-capacity church with a chorus that Wayne Coyne would kill to have created. “Bros” is just as emphatic -- like a blissed-out Beach Boys conducting a medley version of every Christmas song that ever existed. For all the excitement, Lennox is deprived of the masks and costumes associated with Animal Collective, and he cuts a lonely figure onstage. To liven things up, an accompanying projector screen offers everything from splashes of Technicolor that look like exploding Rorschach tests to stadium-crowd shots and a naked rollercoaster ride. The accompanying videos synch up to the sounds, and, at several points during the show, the screens begin to burst along at the speed of the beat. At times, it’s hard to tell whether the seated crowd is subdued or mesmerized, but the applause that meets each opening bar makes it clear that folks are enjoying themselves. It’s not that people don’t want to move, it’s just that Panda Bear makes dance music that’s not really that easy to dance to -- a breakbeat Beach Boys or the Flaming Lips fighting with any number of French duos (Air / Daft Punk / Justice) under a shoegaze haze. That’s not to say that people don’t try: the few folks standing in the aisles attempt to move, but it just ends up looking awkward. While it would be easy to become self-indulgent with such stage a set-up, Lennox keeps things accessible, lightening the load with invigorating samples of scratching, reggae guitars and extra vocals. Some purists may argue that his overall approach -- with no in-between song banter, little movement (Lennox only lifts his head to sing), and no real instruments -- is the opposite of what a live show should be. But Lennox’s heady, hedonistic mix of music and projected mayhem still outshines any number of seedy guitar bands that I've seen schlock up on stage and go through the motions. It’s all about your attitude, and, as the reverend Panda Bear himself tells us on “Comfy in Nautica,” it's important to “try to remember always, always, to have a good time.”