Of all the leading artists on the circuit right now who are enhancing the live electronic music experience — an effort led by the likes of Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, Flying Lotus, and David Tipper — Panda Bear remains distinguished simply due to his voice. Noah Lennox is foremost a singer.
His vocals, sometimes done in chant and often centered on melody, are the presiding instrument over his psychedelic production of digital recordings, samples and beats. It’s the special element when observing him on stage, establishing a sense of musical legitimacy in this complicated arena of electronic, pre-recorded sounds that is so often discredited due to the challenge of on-stage adaptability and authentic musicianship.
During his recent stop in San Francisco at the neoclassical Regency Ballroom, where the blonde hardwood floor was comfortably filled with a predominately millennial fanbase, the Animal Collective co-frontman’s vocals were delivered with resounding lucidity. Either performed without effects or when morphed through pitch correction, reverb and delays, a Panda Bear set is truly a vocal performance backed by pulsating electronica and surrounded in visual projections of curious images.
The opening act was the voiceless duo Flaccid Mojo, contemporaries of Animal Collective who’ve supported them on their recent Tangerine Reef tour. Comprised of Black Dice members Bjorn Copeland and Aaron Warren, Flaccid Mojo produced abrasive beats with melodic squeaks. The intensity of the music was matched with visuals of oddball sexual situations; the most striking being the clip of an obese man receiving a lap dance from a scantily clad young woman recalling to mind Jabba’s Palace from Return of the Jedi. This combination alluded to a new style of music: BDSM EDM.
Optical guru Danny Perez was the man behind the crowd, behind the projections. A fellow Animal Collective alum — he was a major collaborator behind their 2010 visual album ODDSAC — Perez’s range was on full view when Panda Bear appeared and the visuals relaxed into more languid tones.
This San Franciscan appearance was in support of Buoys, Panda Bear’s excellent sixth solo LP that: pays homage to his past (songs built around acoustic guitar à la AC’s Sung Tongs), reiterates his affection for aquatic nature and, of course, showcases his ability to create a chorus of himself through layers of vocals. Water, primarily its sonic effects, is a guiding aesthetic on Buoys with several songs featuring sounds that resemble repeating drops of liquid. Truly only Panda Bear could turn a leaky faucet into art.
He opened his set with “Home Free”, the album’s finale that features the album’s repeated motif of reverberating guitar chords, but on stage there was an absence of a physical guitar. Perhaps the only strike against this otherwise impressive set, the lack of analog instrumentation was of brief disappointment. But when considering the methods in which he could have translated Buoys into a live setting, the use of a guitar seems impractical. When touring behind other records such as 2011’s Tomboy, Panda Bear explained how the energy he saw in a Nirvana performance encouraged him to begin performing with an electric guitar in hand⎯but Buoys is a different beast. The complex rendering of a guitar baked in reverb combined with real-time vocal manipulation and sampling could only work if Noah sprouted a couple of new arms.
Buoys and the vinyl-only EP A Day With the Homies were the primary source material for much of the set list but fan favorite “Comfy in Nautica” was included and slightly revamped to match the buoyancy of Panda Bear’s current direction. The set flowed together smoothly and even when his control system temporarily blew out, the momentary silence was a soothing reprieve.
After earning an encore, Panda Bear returned with the yet-to-be-released “Playing the Long Game” and finished with “Last Night at the Jetty”, a standout from Tomboy, that builds to a triumphant catharsis where he sings “I know I know” in repetition.
His vocals grew gradually, soaring to the height of the ballroom before gracefully subsiding, like boats against the current, disappearing ceaselessly into the wake.