Before Deerhunter played their third song on Tuesday night at the Wonder Ballroom, lead singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Bradford Cox made a claim: “We’re going to play a song you haven’t heard before.” This was false for two reasons: First, because the song in question, “Duplex Planet,” is available on their most recent LP (Fading Frontier, which came out October 16), and second, because the band publicly rehearsed it on stage for at least a half hour after the doors opened.
When I walked into the Wonder before the show, all five touring members of Deerhunter were on stage holding instruments, but not playing. The house lights were on and the room was full of people. Cox was holding court with the audience regarding a section of the aforementioned tune: They were going to play two versions of the song, and the audience had to choose which was better. After taking note of the audience’s opinion, including a candid conversation with the front row, version two was deemed the winner.
For those who follow Deerhunter, Cox’s ability to integrate his public persona and interactions with the audience into his art should feel familiar. His interviews are honest, sprawling and bombastic; he’s released albums' worth of material for free—in various states of completion—via his blog. Perhaps his solution to a contemporary lack of privacy is to turn oversharing into art.
Cox’s solo guise, Atlas Sound, began the night with a compact, fairly improvised set of new music. Glitch and microhouse influences seeped in between the familiar elegant drones of organ and self-sampled, close-harmony vocals. A different flavor of the nostalgic bliss that’s associated with his music was accentuated as a result.
The last sample from Atlas Sound’s set continuously looped while the members of Deerhunter took the stage. Cox picked up a guitar, and, without a break, the band opened with the elegiac chords of “Cover Me (Slowly)” from Microcastle. For the next hour and a half, they rendered their back catalog with veteran swagger. Certain songs were altered to accommodate highly stylized production—“Revival” and “Don’t Cry” from Halcyon Digest got a more straight-ahead, almost bubblegum reading from the band—while others were satisfyingly accurate (“Desire Lines”).
They also played highlights from their latest LP, including a beautifully disorienting, shoegazed version of “Take Care.” Disappointingly absent was “Snakeskin,” a grimy, sneaking, Stereolab-influenced single that feels like it would translate well live. Before “Living My Life,” Cox ran to the back of the stage and quickly demonstrated how to play the song’s groove for drummer Moses Archuleta; the ensuing run-through again felt like a public rehearsal (an impressively successful one, but definitely a bit rocky as only guitarist Lockett Pundt seemed confident about what was going on).
However, the feeling that anything could happen at a rock show is an enjoyable tension, and improvisation is one of Deerhunter’s strengths. Musically, this strength came through during a 10-minute version of kraut-rocker “Nothing Ever Happened” (with Cox incorporating Patti Smith’s iconic rant from Horses during the extended breakdown) and the gorgeous, wistful wash appended to their last song, “Helicopter.” One is reminded how, a decade into their influential career, no other band can make a one-chord improvisation sound so beautiful, natural and relevant.
Sometimes the improv was situational, like when the band surprised a friend’s child by inviting him on stage to play synth and shaker during their last two songs. It was a little bit of a stunt, but a welcome one; it was refreshing that the band was encouraging spontaneity as a means to connect in an era bogged down by technology’s enabling of the mundane. “There are no rules on this stage,” Cox said to the shy performer, encouraging him to play loudly and participate. Again, an untrue statement: The rule is to make cool music and avoid being boring at all costs.