"Cryptograms" and its follow-up/companion EP "Fluorescent Grey" were so impressive this year that it seems a shame Deerhunter found themselves on the Black Cat's Backstage, particularly after playing a lively show at the Rock & Roll Hotel earlier this year, but unfortunately, the band probably couldn't fill the room upstairs. No matter. Thursday's sold out show downstairs, though cramped, was an excellent demonstration of this noise-wave group's dynamics, and it almost got a D.C. audience to dance.
Opener Clockcleaner was a rough fluffer, demonstrating why they've been called "the most hated band in Philly," a denomination they wear proudly. Both the band's music and banter is caustic. They've been banned from one Philly venue for allegedly urinating on the headliner's merch, and there are stories that singer-guitarist John Sharkey once tackled a member of a Baltimore audience who had cerebral palsy, and I can see why they would be hated for that. But despite all their bilious banter, none of it was hateable at the Black Cat. It was too funny. And when they said it was the most boring audience they'd ever played in front of, it seemed less of a crowd-baiter than a common perception of D.C. crowds. Their music is noisy punk with lots of distorted, reverberating guitar and a sludgy, bouncing groove. I can see why many people would hate the heavy, noisy ear assault, but for fans of punk and noise, this stuff is gold. One girl in the crowd swayed back and forth like an over-the-hill hippie at a Stevie Nicks concert. Clockcleaner's closing song was an experiment in both the hard rock and the humor. Why on Earth would a band this heavy and caustic choose The Breeders' "Divine Hammer" to end their set? Any rock 'n' roll guy worth his spit is in love with Kim Deal, sure, but that's more for her Pixies days than anything else. This pop-rock nugget from alternative rock's heyday seemed an odd choice, but covering the quirky catchiness of the original in Clockcleaner's high-volume sludge was a revelation. Let's hope Kim hears it and tries it out if she ever dusts off The Breeders' name again.
Following that ear-splitting onslaught, Deerhunter was a pleasant respite when they took the stage. Always a sight to see thanks to frontman Bradford Cox's tall and gangly physique (he has Marfan syndrome, which also made a visual oddity of Joey Ramone), Cox didn't wear any costume or makeup to accentuate his appearance, but even without it he's at first hard to look at and inevitably hard to look away from. Now a quartet following guitarist Colin Mee's recent (um, the day before) defection from the band, the question of whether a pared down version of Deerhunter could do justice to past live shows arose, and the quick answer was nothing's missing. A third album is rumored for 2008, and Deerhunter opened with a pair of new songs. The first started with that familiar Deerhunter drone atop a fractured dance beat. It slowly crescendoed into monolithic noise pop. The second was a more immediate rocker with a steady rhythm section groove from the get-go. Both bode well for the band's future.
After the new stuff, Deerhunter went back to the material released in 2007, starting with the title track from "Cryptograms." Here they mixed things up a bit, emphasizing the quiet-loud dynamic even more. The quiet segments were softer and more haunting; the loud segments rocked and thrashed. Some in the crowd were unprepared, covering their ears as they had for much of Clockcleaner. Next, "Hazel St." was a little bit darker and little bit faster, making it that much more appropriate for a dance party, and a few people here and there started to get their groove on, though in defense of this D.C. crowd on this night, it was mostly too crowded for anyone to let loose even if they wanted to. "Wash Off" was the highlight of the set. Already a smashing closer for "Fluorescent Grey," it was heavier and more powerful in the live setting, and it broke a guitar, causing for Deerhunter to call for a guitar from Clockcleaner, and Sharkey quickly obliged. "Fluorescent Grey" itself was, like "Cryptograms," an emphasis of the soft vs. the hard, a stunning contrast, and Cox's frequent use of repetition was never more effective than the creepy refrain of "patiently, patiently." The crux of the Deerhunter sound, though, is noisy new wave, and nothing displays it better than "Octet," an ambient, experimental jam and the longest song of the set. Cox abandoned his guitar to focus on muffled vocal effects and gadgetry while the rest of the quartet fell into an incessant, distorted groove.
Deerhunter exited with a heavy rendition of "Strange Lights" that was drenched in distortion, feedback and reverb, but Cox would quickly return alone. The band was too tired to join him, he said, but he seemed excited to treat us to an encore. He first tried to find the right chords for a Neil Young cover, but failing that, he asked for cover requests from the audience. When he played the riff from The Germs' "Forming," it all clicked. As Sharkey took the stage to accompany him (appropriate that The Germs would excite him considering their affection for offensiveness and their knack for being banned from venues), Cox asked if anyone in the crowd could play drums, and among the few hands that raised selected a boy in a horizontal-striped black and white shirt -- boy because he was quite possible legally a child and definitely underage. Once he was behind the kit, Cox asked the boy if he knew "Forming" while the boy started to play a simple pop-pop-pop beat ideal for new wave or post punk, and Cox affirmed, "That’s perfect for The Germs." Another audience member took stage to handle bass duties, and after Cox quickly showed him the chords -- and after one false start -- they were off. It was, as expected, a sloppy rendition, but that's what made it such a perfect song for audience participation. The Germs were a sloppy band. It lagged at times, but Sharkey threw some squeals and distortion over top to keep it heavy and interesting, and Cox always brought it back to that familiar, steady riff. Like he said when they were done, that was a better choice. Neil Young would have brought everyone down.