M83 has built a groundswell audience slowly over the last ten years. Percolating up from the earliest buzz-driven hype from the first generation of online music rags, the band almost entirely driven by Anthony Gonzalez has grown into a juggernaut. The key: the band’s swirling double-album masterpiece, Hurry Up We’re Dreaming, explosively now in its second year of success. Gonzalez teamed with up with mxdwn favorite, longtime Beck bassist/producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen as the album’s co-producer and co-writer. The two created a masterpiece of soulful rumination that has connect with fans both for it’s lively danceable fun, and it’s epic, beautiful sonic experimentations. Tonight, the album’s cycle comes to a spiritual conclusion of sorts at the Hollywood Bowl with the world-famous Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and Choir. It was a fitting stage for what arguably may be the biggest show of M83’s career, and the most important one they’ve ever done. The crowd was elated for every moment and the band’s sound never seemed crisper.
Unlike most events of the KCRW World Music Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, this show featured only one opening act, Phantogram. The band led singer/keyboardist Sarah Barthel is a fun confection, shaped in the mold of Austra, brimming with heavily sequenced keyboards and a boppy dance rhythm. Opening with “Nothing But Trouble” and “16 Years,” the four-piece wasted no time sparking a jovial tone. Like Austra, there is an electro vibe to their sound, butt it stops short of full-on dance party or four-to-the-floor rumble. It’s more a mini-electro tapestry that helps each song come to life with more than just chords and lyrics. Most impressive (and energetic) were the band’s final two numbers “The Day You Died” and “When I’m Small.” They were an appropriate way to warm up the crowd for the lush instrumentation of M83.
For this show, Anthony Gonzalez was joined by his regular live band members singer/keyboardist Morgan Kibby, drummer Loic Maurin and for a special appearance, the band’s producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen on bass and a variety of other instruments. Gonzalez began alone with the orchestra doing the symphonic awakening “In the Cold I’m Standing.” Stoic images of women and men adorned the monitors flanking each side of the stage. The band proper joined for the following numbers “Intro” (yes, “Intro” was second) and “Reunion,” the latter of which featuring the crowd-pleasing chorus of “Oh, oh, oh-oh, ohhh.”
“Sitting” and “We Own the Sky” from Saturdays = Youth followed, the former highlighting the band’s more upbeat side, the latter more of a spiritual rumination. “Steve McQueen” was the night’s first truly epic moment, a flutter of whimsical melodies and warm synths. Reaching back to 2005 album Before the Dawn Heals Us, “Moonchild” set an ominous tone with a brief female spoken word. Gonzalez joyously introduced Brad Laner (of the recently reunited Medicine) to sing “Splendor.” Here, Laner’s vocals joined with Kibby’s and the Hollywood Bowl Choir for the greatest use of choral on the evening. “Wait” became the night’s most triumphant moment. It’s plucky keyboard notes and expertly crafted shifting arrangements reached true sonic heights executed with a full orchestra. The song’s simple refrain of “No time” echoed out into the night; whether it’s a solemn realization that it’s too late to make good, or a determined plea to make use of the time available is up to you to decide.
With already several stellar highlights, Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s daughter Zelly may have stolen the show. Zelly Meldal-Johnsen came out to perform the monologue she did for “Raconte moi Une histoire,” a heart-warming story about finding a frog, becoming one yourself and ultimately wanting the whole world to join you, to “jump all the time and everywhere.” Meldal-Johnsen did each line with wild-eyed confidence while the band ratcheted up the playful backing music and then ran around the stage dancing next to each member of the band. “Skin of the Night” allowed Kibby to take center stage and powerfully make use of operatic level vocals. A short time later, hit single “Midnight City” brought the whole venue to its feet and included a powerful saxophone solo in the outro from Ian Young. In a fitting conclusion to the set proper, “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” aimed for an even more triumphant finale than “Wait” and the moon literally rose above the mountains behind the stage as the song finished.
The band and the orchestra returned to end with three of the best songs they possibly could. Susanne Sundfor joined the group on vocals for the title track to the film Oblivion that Gonzalez scored. “Outro” featured a cascading video highlight reel of gorgeous environmental footage from all around the Los Angeles area. The audience cheered at numerous shots: downtown at night, the view from the Hollywood Hills, the Santa Monica/Pacific Coastline. And finally, the orchestra left to allow the band to perform the dance frenzy “Couleurs” without symphonic accompaniment. The whole audience was again on its feet dancing along. The group took a well-deserved bow to a standing ovation.
It’s hard to do this band’s material the justice it deserves. M83’s music is reaching for levels of understanding beyond the conventional verse-chorus-verse love song. Gonzalez has taken the project and focused it as a magnifying glass for exploring life’s greater psychological mysteries. What do we do with our time on this planet? How important is it to try to maintain a youthful sense of adventure? How much does it matter to keep your eyes open in this world and experience new thing as you would when you were only a small child? Each and every new smell, sight or sound a cornucopia of wonderment. Not the bitter pill that saps us all in a workaday life, causing us to forget just how magnificent the world around us is. Somewhere locked up in those ponderings is M83’s brilliance. To find a way sonically to convey the most cathartic and profound moments that often come only seldom in our respective lifetimes. There are no more important moments to capture. Together, they encapsulate the very spark that makes us human. They embody the moments when we find the courage to try in the face of overwhelming adversity. When every muscle aches yet we press on. When our eyes are bloodshot, our heads pound and we can’t help but press forward all in the name of curiosity. When everything has gone wrong beyond all imaginable consideration yet their still seems to be hope. When the world at its core seems wholly broken, but inside we know everything is going to be all right. When we remember what it’s like to be alive and no challenge seems too hard. Nothing is impossible. The world is alive and free. And so are we.
All photos by Raymond Flotat