Deerhunter Deliver Life-Affirming Message at Mr. Smalls

Performance harks back to resilience of last album

Deerhunter performing at Coachella in April 2010. photo: Iggysaves and Wikipedia.

Deerhunter performing at Coachella in April 2010. photo: Iggysaves and Wikipedia.

During Deerhunter’s raucous yet moving concert Wednesday evening at Mr. Smalls, I caught frontman Bradford Cox smiling twice. The first time, he was jamming on his guitar during an extended outro to “Desire Lines.” The second time was at the show’s close as he high-fived a boy he had brought on stage to play guitar (more on that later).

Otherwise, Cox pouted, scowled, sneered, and taunted his way through a set that was guitar-heavy and just right. However, for the few times that Cox beamed, one got the sense that, beneath the irreverent frontman, was someone happy to be not only performing but also alive.

Fading Frontier

In December 2014, a car hit Cox while he was walking his dog. After his recovery, he and the rest of Deerhunter recorded 2015’s Fading Frontier. On “Take Care,” which was on the set list, Cox sang “lift the guard, and you might find your place in that life, a place where you found hope.” It’s about risking vulnerability to gain more from life. No question Cox was doing this pre-accident. (The man used to perform wearing sundresses with smeared fake blood on his hands and face.) Now 15 years into his career, he is giving no sign of slowing down.

This commitment applied to the other five members of the Atlanta-based group, who took the low-lit stage sans Cox. They launched into the instrumental “Cover Me (Slowly),” which also opens their 2008 album Microcastle. As the song reached its apex, Cox walked on stage and yowled over the distorted guitars.

For this concert, Cox swapped the sundresses and blood for a large jacket with thick buttons, corduroy pants, and a black baseball cap. “Old Uncle Cox,” he called himself later in the show. In appearance? Yes. In performance? No. He was pure rock star. He showed off his guitar chops on the next song, “Agoraphobia,” which was followed by “Rainwater Cassette Exchange,” a conga-infused number.

“Hey, everybody, thanks a lot,” Cox said. “How is everybody?” The crowd, representing Generations X, Y, and Z, hollered back. A speaker suddenly shrilled. After playfully chastising the band (“No feedback!” he said), Cox announced the next song: “Revival,” the first tune of the evening from 2010’s acclaimed Halcyon Digest. The crowd hollered again.

Regardless of the occasional feedback screech, the rest of Deerhunter gave Cox the support that he needed to be the center of attention. Without bassist Josh McKay, percussionist Rhasaan Manning, and drummer Moses Archuleta to anchor the beat, Cox’s guitar solos, which often saw him supine, wrestling his axe, would have spiralled into chaos. No one appreciated the band members more than Cox, who paused mid-set to introduce every one of them.

Javier Morales shone on not only keyboards but also tenor saxophone, providing sputtering solos to songs like “Dream Captain.” If Deerhunter have a secret weapon, it’s longtime guitarist Lockett Pundt. He sang lead vocals on arguably the group’s biggest hit, “Desire Lines.”

Other highlights included the hypnotic “Pensacola,” during which a chargrilled aroma permeated the air courtesy the balcony-level kitchen. The band played the upbeat “Snakeskin” before the encore break. Cox dedicated the tune to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Notable Guest Stars

The evening saw some cameos too. In the crowd close to the stage was a family-friend of Cox’s, whom Cox gave a shout-out to during the show. Cox said he was 10 when that friend was born, and he remembered holding him as a baby.

The biggest surprise came during the final number, “Nothing Ever Happened.” Cox pulled a boy, who couldn’t have been older than 11, from the crowd and laid his guitar over him, partly obscuring the boy’s black Deerhunter T-shirt. The boy also wore red, noise-canceling earmuffs. At first, it looked as if he was just standing there, enjoying the ambiance while the band jammed, and Cox sang snippets of Patti Smith’s “Land.” Then this real-life Johnny B. Goode started trading guitar licks with the band. The crowd cheered and gave fist-pumps of encouragement to the little guy.

The encore jam continued, and some people filed out of Mr. Smalls, though they missed a touching moment. When the song ended, Cox gave the boy his guitar pick, high fives were shared, and the boy was returned to his family in the audience.

He wasn’t the only prodigy that night. Opening act Palm weren’t in elementary school, but they looked young, traditional college age even. They mixed time signatures and tempos while strumming psychedelic riffs and looping what sounded like steel drums except no steel drums were on stage.

“So this is what bands who grew up listening to Animal Collective sound like,” my friend said after their set. Indeed, their male vocalist and guitarist approximated Avey Tare, one of the singers for the revered freak folk group.

Early in Deerhunter’s performance, Cox thanked Palm. I have no doubt we’ll be hearing more from them, whomever that kid was, and of course Deerhunter, whose frontier is far from fading.

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