Words by: Nell Alk | Images by: Kyle Dean Reinford
Grizzly Bear :: 02.28.09 :: Howard Gilman Opera House at Brooklyn Academy of Music :: Brooklyn, NY
Let it be known that this was no ordinary concert. It's not enough that Grizzly Bear boasts talent above and beyond that of 99-percent of other bands breaking it down in the Northeast (I'm allowing for a 1-percent margin of error), but on this occasion the Brooklyn-based quartet shared the stage with renowned music composer Nico Muhly and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, led by internationally lauded conductor Michael Christie. No fewer than 40 trained musicians contributed to bringing down the house. And a full house to boot, brimming with over 2,000 fans of all ages, shapes, sizes and races.
The demographic scope of the crowd mirrored the myriad artists and instruments commanding our undivided attention – and deserving ample accolades – until the theater lights indicated the time had come to return to reality. Diverse backgrounds and otherwise eclectic concentrations collided before our eyes, yielding a rare and deeply appreciated product. Grizzly Bear - consisting of singer-songwriter Daniel Rossen (vocals, guitar, banjo, keys and also half of the excellent indie duo Department of Eagles – think that remaining 1-percent), singer-songwriter Ed Droste (vocals, guitar, omnichord), producer Chris Taylor (bass guitar, woodwinds, electronics, vocals) and Christopher Bear (drums, keys, vocals) - occupied the fore while the orchestra inhabited the aft. Muhly entered and exited from song to song, his Celesta positioned stage right. A sight to behold, the flannel and cardigan clad band members aesthetically complemented their tuxedoed temporary "backup" pack, as well as – and this it the important part – seamlessly constructed a musically cohesive set, potentially describable as the highest form of jam session. However, that term is somewhat misleading. It suggests an absence of preparation, which is an inaccurate estimation judging by the ultimate result - a timeless and simultaneously timely artistic synergy. Hipster meets high society. Thank you, BAM.
In spite of the flawless outcome, Droste alluded to their initial nervousness. "That was really scary, by the way," he professed before Grizzly Bear began their encore, sans orchestral presence. Evidently the band name belies their susceptibility to apprehension. And, an experimental band they may be, but there existed little room for impromptu trial and error in this instance, what with their classical collaboration and all. Not to mention, the men added that this was their first show since October, which not only made this emergence from hibernation that much more special, but also seemingly much more anxiety-inducing.
Regardless of their vacation from live venues, the show was pristine, save for Rossen nearly dropping one of his guitars due to the shoulder strap coming unclasped. The crowd shared a hearty laugh when he facetiously chided himself, "So unprofessional." Devoid of fanfare, the band transitioned into song, the first chord spawning wall-to-wall applause for "While You Wait for the Others," a catchy, melodic pop piece from their upcoming release Veckatimest, arriving May 26 on Warp Records. Considering its release is just under three months from now, it was astounding – and telling – to witness the entire room moved by a single guitar string. Rossen strummed alone, his distinct singing overtaking the space. Gradually, Bear began to delicately drum, happy heads all around nodding in time to the beat. What began as unassuming evolved into a sea of crashing, albeit expertly aligned, rich and textured sounds. The track truly took off once Droste joined in, leading his band mates in four-part harmony, their emotive "oh"s resonating beautifully throughout the room. Thanks in part to the orchestra's participation, this song soared.
|Grizzly Bear w/ Nico Muhly & Brooklyn Philharmonic :: 02.28|
Grizzly Bear looked to the future and back at the past, making a point to draw from previous releases. 2006's Yellow House provided standout "Lullaby," where Rossen rocked a banjo, something the band claimed they had "never done before at a Grizzly Bear show." This elicited cheers and not far from where I was seated, a flirtatious whistle of the construction worker variety. The overzealous fan was onto something - the execution gave me goose bumps. The Philharmonic opened. Then Rossen began to play. Stage-left stood guest artist twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National, one on guitar, the other on banjo. The overall delivery oscillated from robust and blossoming to silent and still. A peculiar but precisely selected aesthetic choice, this maneuver reflected the eerie lyrics, a six-line story, so-to-speak, yielding a greater, though unspoken, narrative than the language alone inherently carried.
Throughout the evening the Grizzly Bear boys played a variation of the childhood favorite, musical chairs. Concert translation: multi-instrumentalists strutting their stuff – furniture optional. I'm only kidding, but their range of capabilities is seriously astounding. Rossen switched guitars between nearly every single song. The exchange pace was dizzying, and he'd sometimes strum with such vigor that it appeared from afar as though he were working a stain out against a washboard. As said, he also broke out the banjo, bringing the folk with full force. He even jumped on keys. Droste often performed hands-free, but he grabbed the guitar, too, and oversaw his omnichord.
|Daniel Rossen - Grizzly Bear w/ Brooklyn Philharmonic :: 02.28|
Taylor takes the cake for instrumental assortment, though. He'd bounce from bass to saxophone to flute and back again. Bear made the rounds, impressing with his percussion and sporadically controlling the keyboard. When drumming, his rag-doll-like bending body was striking. He'd bow his entire torso in the direction of his strike, a human shadow to the stroke. At times he stiffened, jerking to and fro as if bound by marionette strings. His classy look, which included a stylish black bowtie and a dapper 'do, parted and positioned perfectly (until met with sweat), further reinforced this visual trick. By appearances, "Bear" might well have been "Square." But in all seriousness, his musical gift, physical language and classy getup were collectively intriguing.
A rather bizarre ballad from an older disc, Grizzly Bear's cover of The Crystals' 1960s song "He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)" (off the Friend EP, 2006) wowed the crowd. Their rendition mesmerized, the otherwise disturbing lyrics becoming, for the first time by any band (as far as I'm concerned), genuinely believable. Droste killed it, his plaintive voice echoing, in part due to the crisp acoustics of the environment, in part because his mic was programmed to manipulate this way. The pairing of subject matter and singer dripped with irony of the best kind, with Droste's far-from-faint form hovering before the stand, hands cupping the top as he crooned. Both his frame and his singing (think even more "oh"s that seemingly floated on forever) dwarfed everyone and everything in the room, maybe even the entire borough of Brooklyn. Dim lighting established the mood, the ambiance bolstering the tune's ominous nature. Serving as an audible foil to Droste's singing, jarring drums and harsh strums snuck up, piercing the air amidst stunning harmonies. Like "Lullaby," this track waxed and waned, swinging like a pendulum from coarse and aggressive to smooth and absorbing. Dramatic and passionate, but not superficially, it's no wonder the band reserved this hypnotic song 'til last.
|Grizzly Bear w/ Nico Muhly & Brooklyn Philharmonic :: 02.28|
Curtain close signified the end to a night not soon to be forgotten. Or repeated (once again, thank you, BAM). And, early in the year as it is, there's no doubt in my mind Veckatimest will be at the top of many critic's list come the close of 2009. With its sublime arrangements and poetic wordplay, the dynamic material is sure to win over discerning ears everywhere. From poppy to psychedelic, ecstatic to somber, Grizzly Bear's compositional masterpiece runs the gamut. These Grizzly Bears aren't cubs anymore. Hear them roar.
Grizzly Bear :: 02.28.09 :: Brooklyn, NY
Easier, Central & Remote, Ready, Able, Two Weeks, Plans, Colorado, Reprise, Little Brother, Campfire, Dory, While You wait for the Others, Foreground,
Encore: Deep Blue Sea, He Hit Me
Continue reading for more pics of Grizzly Bear with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and Nico Muhly...