Grizzly Bear sheds studio polish, revels in imperfections at Pabst Theater
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Whether you find Grizzly Bear founder Ed Droste refreshing or nauseating, you’ve got to give him points for honesty. When last year’s Grammy nominations failed to acknowledge his band’s well-received Shields album, Droste wasted no time in whining about it on Twitter: “So the Grammies are literally based off sales and nothing else? #bummerzone,” he lamented. If his band’s career arc is any indication, though, he won’t have to wait too much longer for institutional awards; since he started it as a solo project a decade ago, Grizzly Bear’s albums have gotten markedly more commercial with each release. But while Shields is certainly the band’s most accomplished and technically impeccable album to date, it feels calculated for acclaim, whereas the band’s best work is more haunting and emotional than impressive. Tuesday night’s show at the Pabst Theater, with the studio polish stripped away, showcased a band resplendent in its imperfections.
The same could be said for opening act Owen Pallett. The Canadian singer/violinist/keyboardist and his drummer and bassist struck forth boldly with an array of loops and sometimes dizzying digital and organic beats, and while the resulting rhythms frequently scrambled to catch up, the overall effect was thoroughly infectious. Pallett’s vision is sort of like if Andrew Bird was more prog and less chamber-pop; his use of effects on his violin frequently brought to mind Robert Fripp, and the music’s eerie, dynamic soundscapes flowed and swelled in a very Tortoise-like manner. Pallett has been a frequent collaborator with Grizzly Bear over the years, and he joined the headliners for a couple of songs towards the end of their set, but unfortunately his violin could scarcely be heard amidst the din.
Part of the reason Grizzly Bear is so much better live is that Droste lets his overtly serious persona fall by the wayside. He was immediately gracious and affable with the crowd prior to playing any music, but then didn’t talk for quite a while so as not to break the spell cast by the majestic opener “Speak In Rounds” and a stunning and unique light show highlighted by electronic paper lanterns that rose and fell in various patterns throughout the show. The way Droste is able to let loose as a singer when he’s onstage makes his studio performances seem even more sterile; he’s a completely different artist when he’s not questing for the perfect take. For Daniel Rossen, the band’s co-leader, the difference isn’t quite as drastic, but the full power of his commanding vocals (particularly on “What’s Wrong”) has never been captured on a Grizzly Bear record.
Predictably, the band relied heavily on Shields, playing all but one song from the album, while saving fan-favorites from the 2006 breakthrough Yellow House until the encore. “Lullabye” from that album was easily the highlight of the early goings; it was somewhat chaotic and darkly powerful, in stark contrast to the more structured newer material. The band’s recent hit “Yet Again” was a bit tame following this, until a sudden shoegaze-jam coda elevated it to something far more intense than expected. Next was “Shifts” (the only representative from the band’s first album, Horn Of Plenty), which was supremely delicate and gorgeous, with haunting vocal harmonies that few bands could pull off so convincingly. But while the set lost a bit of momentum after this point, the finale of “Sun In Your Eyes” was a revelation, a massive tune that shifted expertly between a whisper and a roar, hinting that the band’s Zeppelin-esque ambitions might not be completely out of reach. After all, Zeppelin never won any Grammys, either. Fans knew the only way to get the full experience was to see ’em live.