Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Beach House / The Chamanas - Live 2016.04.11

I'm still a fairly new fan of Beach House, but I thoroughly enjoy all six of their albums and jumped at the chance to see them live. They played a special "installation" show the night prior at Brazos Hall as a duo, mostly performing songs off their first two albums and latest (Thank Your Lucky Stars), but tickets were fairly expensive and I wasn't convinced it would be worth it for me. This show was a more conventional affair (relatively speaking) and tickets were more reasonably priced, so I couldn't resist. It sold out, so I'm glad I moved fast.

Artist: Beach House
Venue: Moody Theater (Austin City Limits Live)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 11 April 2016
Opening Act: The Chamanas

Setlist:
01. Levitation
02. Walk in the Park
03. Other People
04. PPP
05. Majorette
06. Silver Soul
07. Space Song
08. 10 Mile Stereo
09. Somewhere Tonight
10. Beyond Love
11. Wishes
12. Elegy to the Void
13. Myth
14. Sparks

Encore:
15. Saltwater
16. Irene

The Chamanas are a Latin-influenced indie rock band hailing from Ciudad Juárez and El Paso. They appeared as a five-piece, and the first things that struck me were the massive rack of keyboards in the back and the electric classical guitar in the front. The keyboardist indeed had a prominent role in their sound, but the rhythmic, punctuated guitarwork was a highlight for me, even if the guitarist switched out for a regular electric guitar for most of the set. Neither musician was particularly showy; the guitarist only took one solo, and neither the drummer nor bassist were particularly dramatic, either. However, the frontwoman more than made up for it: she sang with a consistently strong force while grooving energetically to the music. She held the focus of the music and rarely paused for instrumental breaks. Her lyrics were entirely in Spanish, and so I unfortunately could not understand them, but when she addressed the audience, she switched to English. Her stage banter mostly consisted of clichés about the uniqueness of the moment and the special situation at hand, and I don't think she convinced much of the audience of her message. Nonetheless, I appreciated her vocal talent and the ability of the band to make fairly good music without stealing the show from the singer. The only other weak element was a harder song that just didn't quite gel right; it happened to be the one with the guitar solo.

[The Chamanas.]

Beach House currently tour with two additional members. Core members Victoria Legrand (vocals, keyboard, guitar) and Alex Scally (guitar, keyboard, vocals) were joined by bassist/keyboardist Skyler Skjelset and drummer Graham Hill. Instead of the normal rock band stage configuration with the vocalist front and center, other instrumentalists to the side, and drums in back, this quartet opted to appear in a row midway back on the stage, similar to the standard old-school synthpop arrangement (à la Kraftwerk or early Depeche Mode). However, the line was slightly concave, such that Alex and Graham (on the ends) were slightly closer to the front than Victoria and Skyler (in the middle).

Their deliberate disinterest in mimicking stale rock clichés was further reinforced by the lighting: instead of the usual spotlights on the singer and lead musician, they used projectors at the front of the stage to light up three large canvases behind the band. Sometimes these were used to display various dreamy visual effects, and sometimes it was just colored light. Various other combinations of light and smoke machines were employed to cast shadows in a dramatic but hazy manner. Partway into the set, the backdrop was suddenly lit up with a field of small lights, as if looking into the night sky in the country and seeing the vast array of stars. Even if it wasn't elaborate, I thoroughly enjoyed the visual element. It suited the mood perfectly.

[Beach House in the stars.]

The band was not one to make poses or engage in gross displays of showmanship; Alex in particular hardly moved unless it was necessary to start a drum loop or pick up his slide. He even committed the absolute most heinous crime of rock 'n' roll: sitting down to play an electric guitar. (I hope my sarcasm is obvious.) Victoria, on the hand, despite mostly being glued to her keyboard, managed to dance and sway as much as she could. She mostly stayed in place, but certainly made it clear that she was moved by the music.

And what music it was! They played a balanced mix of songs from their last four albums, every single one an excellent choice. As is perhaps to be expected, the live performance instilled a bit of additional energy into the songs. They retained their dreamy, warm, ethereal qualities, but there was just a bit more of an edge and a danceable notion. Perhaps the presence of a thick, fuzzy bass and a live drumset would inevitably produce such results, but in any case it worked.

A few songs were noticeably different than the studio versions. In most cases, it was just a bigger beat from the combination of the drums and drum machine or a slightly different arrangement of the guitar and keyboards. However, a few songs featured heavier, more energetic sections, often as a final crescendo. The most dramatic example was the ending of "Elegy to the Void", which was already notable as the only song performed with Victoria on guitar. The song is already long on record, and after they built it up to a noisy peak, they just kept at it for longer than I would have expected. Such heavy noise may not work for everyone, but for anyone who can comfortably draw a connection between Beach House and My Bloody Valentine, it's a form of bliss.

If Beach House have a fault, it might be that many of their songs tend to blur into each other; they are susceptible to confusion and indistinctness. Nonetheless, even if they only do one thing, they do it extremely well. I have so many favorite songs of theirs that they couldn't fit them all into one set if they tried, but they came fairly close. If I had to pick favorites, I would probably favor their brighter, bigger, more intricately produced albums (Teen Dream, Bloom, Depression Cherry) just a touch over the darker, softer, more minimalist ones (Beach House, Devotion, and Thank Your Lucky Stars). I think the band also views these two sounds as distinct sides of the band: the setlist favored the first category, while the installation shows have been very explicitly favoring the second.

The band pulled quite a trick by releasing Thank Your Lucky Stars mere weeks after Depression Cherry last year (and claiming that Stars wasn't a surprise despite being announced only nine days before release!). Again, though, they do stand separate to me. And while I happen to slightly prefer Depression Cherry, it occurred to me that they picked the three best songs from Stars to perform at this show, and not only that, they were even better than the studio counterparts. "Majorette" and "Somewhere Tonight" were beautiful and highlights of the set.

The one other song that stood out was "Saltwater", the first track from their first, self-titled album. Victoria and Alex performed it as a duo, both on keyboards. Despite being a bit of an outlier in the set, I like the song and they did it justice. In fact, seeing them pull that song and the three from Stars off so well made me wish I had gone to the installation show the night prior after all!

The only thing that wasn't perfect was the feeling that a couple songs were missing something. It would be a song where I was waiting for a big rise... and then nothing changed. I was expecting something like a deep bassline or a heavy guitar part or something, and it just wasn't there. I don't know whether something really was lacking (that is, the live arrangement was just different), whether my memory was just wrong in the moment, or whether there was some failure in the instrumentation or mix. At any rate, it was only a brief distraction, and those few moments were the only disappointments of an otherwise excellent show.

[A rare moment of nearly normal lighting.]

Scores:
The Chamanas: B-
Beach House: A
Beach House: B-
Devotion: B+
Teen Dream: A
Bloom: A
Depression Cherry: A-
Thank Your Lucky Stars: B+

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