Words by: Cal Roach
Animal Collective :: 05.19.09 :: Riverside Theater :: Milwaukee, WI
May 19 was finally here. It seemed like an incredibly long three months since the announcement of this tour and the arrival of Animal Collective in Milwaukee. For the first time in at least ten years that I've seen, the first several rows of seats in the Riverside Theater had been removed for the masses of obsessives. After a speedy sell-out of a smaller local theater, the show was moved here, sold out again, and I couldn't be more pleased; the red velvet drapery, crystalline chandeliers and ornate golden décor have lorded over some momentous shows, but lately the room has been relegated to geezers and show tunes. Tonight was destined to be a night unlike any other I'd been here for.
Too bad, in a way, about the overeager crowd, hopped up on free Magic Hat #9 ale and bursting with barely-contained anticipation. The elegant atmospherics of Grouper (aka Liz Harris) were largely lost on the chatty crowd. She opened her set by layering some not-at-all-simplistic vocal harmonies, and from there she created soundscapes through looping guitar and electronic noise and drenching the whole thing in reverb. It was gothic in spirit, somewhat Jarboe-esque in execution, though without the cackling; she rode the fine line between soothing and creepy like Portishead used to do. Her rhythm was not always perfect, her layering was occasionally lopsided to distraction, but that may not have been entirely her fault anyway. I'm guessing she has the potential to be utterly captivating in the right setting.
My first impression as Animal Collective began "In The Flowers" was a slight disappointment that they had to use the sampled guitar part instead of just playing it. I didn't expect a lot of organic instrumentation, but surely they could've pulled off that simple phrase? A minor detail; I blew it off. But then, with two mini-kits onstage, they didn't even use any real drums for the big sucker punch. Still, it didn't really bother me. It's the perfect opening song, all about that mystical experience of a great live show, and I was sure the sound guy would begin tweaking things soon...
Hmmm. They should've saved "Guys Eyes" for later in the show, after the sound was locked in, I thought. It was as if Avey Tare and Panda Bear were trying to force as much unbridled SOUND through the speakers as possible, and it came out sounding like a pirated Beach Boys MP3s, overdriven and riddled with digi-noise. This tune bled into a new tune, "What Would I Want Sky," a choice little word echo, and then seamlessly into the giddy "For My Girls." It was a freaky, inspired performance of the song; too bad it sounded as if I were driving in a '77 Impala, blasting a damaged Mamas & Papas 8-track through one crappy speaker in the middle of the floor. And also, the interior is coated in aluminum. "Summertime Clothes" showed no improvement; the treble was cranked so high in the mix that everything came out scratchy, and the vocals were completely muddled and washed out. It's impossible that this is how they wanted to sound, right?
I couldn't stand it any more; I had to walk around the room during "Daily Routine," but the sound was crap everywhere, even the balcony. What should have been a bouncy, psychedelic dreamscape was twinkling, fuzzy noise with a somewhat discernible melody. "Fireworks" was a major highlight. It would have been a mesmerizing epic, with Avey finally jamming some actual guitar and Panda tearing shit up on his drum kit, a scorching run through with an "Essplode" interlude and a triumphant return to "Fireworks," except the vocals crackled through the speakers like a circular saw scraping a nail.
|Animal Collective by Daniel Arnold|
I'm not saying that it wasn't apparent how incredible this band is. Every song flowed effortlessly and expertly into the next like an uneasily shifting fever dream, and the songs were evolving into various states of glorious insanity right before our eyes. There were singers onstage nailing scattershot, unorthodox melodies and harmonies, I'm pretty sure. I tried really hard to get over the bad sound and enjoy myself but it proved impossible. Some 8th grade A/V club flunky at the boards was ruining what might have been the show of the year.
I had thought by the time the amazing "Brother Sport" rolled out I'd be jumping ecstatically; instead, I was sitting down, because the bodies overhead muffled the abrasive treble enough for me to make out what was going on, like squinting at a Picasso that someone pissed on. Not much to say about the beat-less encore of "Banshee Beat" and a couple more ensuing tunes; I just wanted to leave. Every show I've ever seen at the Riverside has featured impeccable sound, until this one. If these guys really aspire to the "amazing outdoor listening experience" insinuated by the name of their new album, Merriweather Post Pavilion (yes, it is as good as critical praise suggests), they're going to need to find a new sound engineer.
For more on Animal Collective check our exclusive feature/interview here.
Animal Collective tour dates available here.
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