Animal Collective Create Audiovisual Masterpiece at Mr. Smalls

New songs, deep cuts, a brilliant cover round out set list

Animal Collective in a 2008 concert (l. to r.) Geologist, Avey Tare, and Panda Bear. photo: adrigu and Wikipedia.

Animal Collective in a 2008 concert (l. to r.) Geologist, Avey Tare, and Panda Bear. photo: adrigu and Wikipedia.

Although short a guitarist and heavy on samplers, Animal Collective made electronic music that was organic and spontaneous Friday night at Mr. Smalls. Taking the stage around 10 p.m. amid three towering Cubist head sculptures (think Easter Island meets Pablo Picasso), Panda Bear, Geologist, Avey Tare, and touring drummer Jeremy Hyman played fourteen songs, often without pause. The band melded outros into intros, teasing the audience with snippets of the next song before diving in. They turned choruses into jams, painting a psychedelic audio-fresco inside the former Catholic church. An LCD projector sent rainbow patterns onto the stage and backdrop, and the sculptures often glowed internally. The audience clapped and cheered their approval with every sonic and visual turn.

An Electronic Jam Band

Hyman deserves much credit. His tribal drumming provided a live counterpart to the samplers and synths manned by the other members. Of course, Animal Collective have never allowed samples to impede spontaneity. The group counts the Grateful Dead as an influence, and although they sound decades removed from the Dead sonically, they emulate their forebears stylistically by rarely performing a song straight. The members of Animal Collective play their samplers like other musicians play guitars: elongating notes, modulating pitches, digressing and returning to the main hooks. Never do they simply press play. In short, they jam.

Nowhere was the jamming more fun than on an incredibly reworked cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Jimmy Mack.” “Come on now!” Avey Tare yelled as the music began to loop. Toward the end of the tune, he asked the audience for some participation, reminding them that they are a collective after all. Following his lead, the audience repeated “Jimmy!” over the frenzied instrumentation. The performance was far from four white dudes ironically covering an old soul song. Rather, Avey Tare and the audience inhabited the pain of the song’s protagonist, who longs for Jimmy Mack’s return while being tempted by another suitor.

Most of the night’s songs showed off the interplay between Avey Tare and Panda Bear. The former stood stage left: a raucous baritone. The latter, stage right: a calming tenor. (Geologist, a headlamp affixed to his forehead, stood between them.) The pair didn’t miss a cue the entire night: sometimes harmonizing, sometimes playing a sort of lyrical Mad Libs as they finished and overlapped each other’s lines. Standouts included the opener, “Lying in the Grass;” “Water Curses;” and “FloriDada,” which was the last song before the encore break. Among all the electronics, the lyrics sounded more like guttural chanting than words, a delectable, primordial, lyrical soup which could always be felt even if it sometimes couldn’t be understood.

“Kids on Holiday” was the first song of the encore. Avey Tare introduced it as one the band played in Pittsburgh in 2003. The venue went unnamed, but he said it had couches, so you can guess the size of it. He asked if anyone in the audience was at that show, and a few raised their hands and hollered. Avey Tare beamed.

Back then, he said, they played “Kids on Holiday” with two acoustic guitars. My concert compatriot, who knew the song from their 2004 album, Sung Tongs, thought their new version was amazing, but I found the electronics for once too overpowering. The lyrics that I could hear (“the smell of pajamas … There’s a boy who’s a Krishna”) seemed delightfully odd, and I wish I could have made out more of them. It might have been poignant to hear the song as it was performed here over a decade ago.

Yet this was a strictly no-guitar show. Guitarist Deakin was busy finishing and later promoting a solo album, Sleep Cycle, this year. He didn’t appear on the new Animal Collective album, Painting With, and his absence is likely why the freak folk band went in a more electronic direction both in the studio and on tour. They played seven songs from the new album Friday.

A similar stylistic shift occurred on 2009’s critically acclaimed Merriweather Post Pavilion, also electronic and Deakin-less. The band performed three songs from Merriweather: “Daily Routine,” “Guys Eyes,” and the night’s closer, “Summertime Clothes.” Temperatures may be finally dropping in southwestern Pennsylvania, but lines like “Sweet summer night, and I’m stripped to my sheets / Forehead is leaking, my AC squeaks” should have spoken to anyone who was here this past July. The audience hopped and danced. We could have partied another hour, though we had long broken curfew.

Skipping the Hits

“Do you think Eric Copeland knew we were here?” my friend asked when the opener finished his set. Whereas Animal Collective balanced performance with audience interaction, Eric Copeland took to his sampler head down, played some beats (some infectious, some repetitive), and quietly left after what felt like an hour. Still, his experimental music made for a good pairing, a preview of the controlled chaos which was to follow.

Perhaps what’s most astounding about an Animal Collective show is how often they skip the hits for the deep cuts or an obscure cover and how ultimately this choice makes for an equally great, perhaps even better, show. Their biggest single, “My Girls,” and their newest single, “Golden Gal,” were absent from their set, yet I’ll always accept such omissions if it means hearing a one-of-a-kind take on a Martha and the Vandellas song instead. A concert is meant to offer an experience different from a recording. These men from Baltimore, active since 2003, performed something outside any audience member’s record collection, iTunes library, or Spotify playlist. You can surely YouTube scenes from this tour, but the sum of those recorded parts will never equal the audiovisual whole of being there.

Christopher Maggio is a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor and loves going to concerts.