Concert Review: Destroyer At Brooklyn Masonic Temple 6/18/2012

 

I have a man crush on Dan Bejar. Admittedly, part of this has to do with his scruffy beard, shocks of unkempt curly hair, and the distant, soft glint in his eye. (These are all nothing more than due compliments from one dude to another dude, and there is nothing homoerotic about them, I swear). But mostly, my love for Bejar, mastermind behind Destroyer and sometime member of the New Pornographers and Swan Lake, comes down to the fact that the man is an outstanding songwriter. Over seventeen years and a dozen records with Destroyer, Bejar has exhibited a Bowie-like restlessness in constantly transforming his sound from album to album—from melodic folk rock (2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction) to a demented twist on arena rock (2002’s This Night) to MIDI orchestration (2004’s Your Blues)—while maintaining a high level of songwriting quality. This is unusual among Pitchfork darlings—which Bejar certainly is—who typically value style over substance; forging a particular sound over writing songs that don’t all sound exactly like each other. But I digress.

Destroyer’s latest record, 2011’s Kaputt, stretched my tolerance for the Vancouverite bard’s chameleonic nature just a bit, at least at first. It abandoned traditional rock instrumentation in favor of New Age Avalon-style synths, smooth jazz saxophone, and danceable disco-flavored beats. Even Bejar’s vocal delivery seemed altered. In place of his bizarrely-accented yelp and the vexing, verbose poeticism that has always defined Bejar’s songs, Kaputt featured comparatively simple melodic lines and less wordy lyrical ideas, as well a more detached singing style. Upon my first few listens, I was not impressed. It was all a bit 80s-sounding for my ears. You know, the 80s. Neon spandex. Ronald Reagan. Wham!. That stuff. Why anyone considers it an era worthy of a “revival,” particularly a musical one, is utterly beyond my mere mortal faculties of logic. Naturally, Kaputt quickly became the most popular Destroyer record ever, once and for all proving that everyone’s taste sucks except mine (or, far more likely, the other way around). Actually, I’ve come around to the record and now like it a lot. It’s certainly not my favorite Destroyer album, but it would be unfair of me to expect Bejar to ever again scale the heights that masterpieces like Streethawk and This Night did. Still, it managed to put me off just enough that I skipped Destroyer’s tour last year, for which Bejar assembled a New Age musical army and essentially performed Kaputt in its entirety and only did two or three token older songs on a given night.

The summer 2012 tour is a different story. Once again, Destroyer has expanded its ranks, but its skill set is no longer solely Kaputt-centric. The new seven-piece lineup maintains trumpet player JP Carter and saxophone/flute utility man Joseph Shabason to extend the previous tour’s aesthetic, but also includes musicians who have been contributing to Destroyer records for years, including guitarist Nic Bragg and bassist John Collins (who also plays bass for the New Pornographers and produces most Destroyer records). Bejar has thus been taking advantage of this unit’s versatility, which is well-outfitted to play a diverse array of songs from the entirety of Bejar’s deep catalog, by mixing up the setlists nightly. Excited by this prospect, I hopped the C train to the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, a creaky-looking Bowery Ballroom-sized venue in Fort Greene. I donned an earth-colored blazer and, having not shaved my beard in many weeks, hoped to look the part of Brooklyn hipster in order to blend in with the crowd.

Opening the show was Bejar’s fellow Canadian Sandro Perri. His voice was reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s froggy Nashville Skyline era croon, while his songs were often developed into extended instrumental sections, driven by synths and his own beachy, fragmented, quite interesting guitar lines, somewhat reminiscent of, well… Kaputt era Destroyer. With his olive-colored cheeks, curly locks, and cerebral air, he even kind of looked like Bejar.

Destroyer kicked off their set in understated fashion, with a faithfully rendered version of the title track from Your Blues, complete with Bejar’s a Capella intro. The song’s standout section, however, was not his repeated “Lord knows I’ve been trying refrain,” but rather the mid-song trumpet solo by JP Carter. Carter resembles the guy in The Dark Knight whom the Joker sews a cell phone bomb into, but produced some of the night’s most distinctive moments. Equipped with effects pedals, he improvised a noisy, Hendrixoid solo intro to Kaputt’s discofied standout, “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker,” that induced large grins from the rest of the band, which read as something between amusement and awe.

The set, to my slight chagrin, leaned heavily on Kaputt material, complete with precisely-replicated synth tones and sax solos. But there was, unsurprisingly, an added heft to them in a live setting, particularly in the a case of “Savage Night At The Opera.” On the album, it’s a suave groove track dominated by reverb-drenched, attack-less synth lines and a half asleep Bejar vocal. On stage, driven by a savage, propulsive drumbeat by Joshua Wells, it became a fearsome, pummeling rock grenade. The studio version will now forever seem thin and limp by comparison. Otherwise, the band seemed more eager to recast and reconfigure older songs than newer ones. The two guitar attack Wells’ excellent drumming irreverently transformed “Heartswarm,” which Bejar originally recorded as a lush acoustic ballad with Swan Lake, his side project with fellow Vancouver indie rockers Spencer Krug and Carey Mercer, into something one could conceivably wave a lighter to. Likewise, “Libby’s First Sunrise” from 2008’s Trouble In Dreams, meditative and understated in the studio, barreled ahead with menace, without sacrificing any of its melodicism.

So this is a pretty great Destroyer lineup. But people don’t become Destroyer fans for the band dynamic or the trumpet player. Destroyer fandom is a cult of personality around Dan Bejar. It’s about trying to decipher his lyrics, or not bothering and just letting them evoke what they may. It’s about singing along to all the “da da dums” and “la di das” he puts in his songs. It’s about the mystery of the man and his music. With that in mind, Bejar played the part of enigma well on Monday night. He doesn’t play guitar on stage anymore and instead adopts an idiosyncratic, lackadaisical frontman style. Microphone clutched in his right hand as he used his left to lean against his hip-height mic stand, he sang with eyes either closed or diverted to the ground, and only getting animated at rare moments, such as during the climactic buildups of the epic “Rubies.” When he wasn’t singing, he crouched at the front of the stage, gazing distantly at his monitor, gulping beer, and listening to his crack band. He rarely spoke to the audience, mustering only a “thank you” or three and a sly, “it’s hot in here… temperature wise.” Was it entrancing showmanship? Perhaps not. But his offbeat persona is why we love him. Besides, the strength of the current iteration of Destroyer lies in the seven guys standing behind him. Maybe he’s wise to get out of their way.

 

Setlist:

Your Blues / Savage Night At The Opera / Downtown / Heartswarm / European Oils / Blue Eyes / Looters’ Follies / Kaputt / Suicide Demo For Kara Walker / Libby’s First Sunrise / Rubies / Encore: Self Portrait With Thing (Tonight Is Not Your Night)



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