Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Concertgoer: Destroyer & The War On Drugs

There was an accidental logic in seeing The War On Drugs a week and a half after former WoD member Kurt Vile came to town. Granted, I didn't see much of The War On Drugs--what sort of rock concerts begins at 7:30?--just enough to tease out the similarities. Vile's old band also have an underwhelming frontman, and similarly draw on classic rock without being wholly derivative. In the case of War On Drugs, their music takes the shape of something Wilco might've made between A Ghost Is Born and Sky Blue Sky. There's even some cool, Nels Cline-style guitar. The group's liability is frontman Adam Granduciel, whose vocals ape the stretched-out vowels of Blonde On Blonde. It's less an homage than a grating imitative gesture, and the band sounds better when his mouth is closed.

Destroyer have frontman issues as well. It's not that Dan Bejar is or isn't a good frontman, it's that he neglects the role entirely. Live, the roguish Bejar wanders around, distractedly. Bejar kept his mic stand at about knee-length, and returned his mic there when he wasn't singing; he crouched for many of the show's opening numbers, sipping beer when his vocals weren't required; he entered in a jean jacket; and he referred to lyric sheets for two of his own compositions. While he didn't seem pleased to be performing, Bejar did deliver his enjambed lines and trilled coos as on record. Even when he's just standing there, his vocals still sound like a man wildly gesticulating. He did not play guitar at all.

Destroyer's success rested less on Bejar's performance than the seven musicians he's playing with. These included a saxophonist/flautist and trumpeter in addition to the guitars, keyboard, bass, and drums. With the horns and a female vocalist, the band was well equipped to play material form this year's Kaputt.* They were never introduced, but whoever they are, their mélange--sultry horns, keyboard washes, and low-end kick--is brilliant. I hope someone recorded the extended jam at the end of "Song For America"--the band reached a dense, commanding crescendo, and then set down their instruments and left.

The Kaputt Players dipped into a few back catalog numbers. These were only lightly reworked, but the band added horns to some Rubies favorites, and conjured a sublime "My Favorite Year." I can personally attest that this performance was much better than the one Destroyer gave in Minneapolis three years ago, when they played that same song. The difference comes down to the music--the airy density of the Kaputt material allows Bejar to inhabit a space from which his disinterested verbiage becomes another evocative element. The 2008 show had him fronting a rock band, and onstage this does not come naturally to him.

So it's been disappointing to read that Bejar may give up music. For years, Bejar alone kept singer-songerwriterdom fresh. It seems like strange timing, now that he's pivoted from vagabond to sophisticate, and assembled a pretty tight band. But eccentrics don't follow career paths--Kaputt seems to have accidentally captured some zeitgeist--and if this is actually it (which I doubt), than Bejar went out with a good live show. For once.

*The band did not include Sibel Thrasher, whose backing vocals make such a lovely counterpoint on many of the new songs

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