There was a point in time not too long ago that Deerhunter and Dirty Projectors were about as big as it gets when it comes to indie rock. At the end of the last decade, Dirty Projectors released their breakthrough Bitte Orca, a record that blends elements of alternative rock, R&B and experimental pop into a sound that was completely unique and beloved by most major music blogs. A year later Deerhunter managed to top the previous high-water mark of Microcastle / Weird Era Cont. with the masterful Halcyon Digest. Releasing albums of that caliber granted both groups a considerable amount of leeway and while neither has released a bad album in the last 10 years they also haven’t really been able to match those legendary albums.
So here we are a decade later and both groups, having released new albums in the last two years, are still quite able to fill a large theater like The Wiltern. The Los Angeles stop marked the first date on their co-headlining tour — while both bands were able to fairly faithfully recreate some of their most beloved tracks along with some newer cuts, neither group put on an inspired performance. Luckily, with discographies as deep as these groups, even a by-the-books performance is still very much worth the cost of admission.
It’s likely that as a co-headlining tour, the two bands will take turns as the opening act and this night it was Dirty Projector’s turn to go first. While the venue was certainly crowded, with no true opening act, it was a bit distracting to have folks filtering into the audience as the band performed. Dirty Projectors have recently had a very fluid lineup, with the most notable departure being vocalist Amber Coffman. On this tour the band consists of David Longstreth playing guitar and singing, Nat Baldwin on bass, Mike Johnson on drums, Felicia Douglass on percussion and vocals, Maia Friedman on guitar and vocals and Kristin Slipp on keyboards and vocals. The first song that really got the crowd’s attention and actually got bodies moving was “Beautiful Mother” from their collaborative album with Björk. The group was able to faithfully perform the intertwining and complex vocal patterns and handclaps, the song being simultaneously energizing and relaxing, with some audience members fully dancing and others thoughtfully bobbing their heads.
Longstreth also took the opportunity to perform a few new songs, which indicates the band is back to creating music at a similar rate to their late-aughts levels and the five-year gap between 2012’s Swing Lo Magellen and Dirty Projectors in 2017 was a circumstantial anomaly. First up was the song “Inner World,” followed by “Search for Love.” While “Inner World” exhibited much of the instrumental layering and experimental vocals that are synonymous with Dirty Projectors’ output, “Search for Love” was a more straightforward, traditional pop song. The final new song was “Overlord.” Other songs from the band’s set included a relatively subdued performance of “It’s A Lifestyle,” “Break-Thru” and the reggae-tinged “Cool Your Heart.” One of the highlights of the set was Longstreth taking the time to teach the audience how to sing the warped and warbling chorus to the band’s collaboration with Syd, “Right Now” — far from the easiest melody to sing along with, the audience didn’t do a great job, but Longstreth was charitable and encouraging.
Because they were technically the “opener” for the night, there was no encore for Dirty Projectors. After a short break, Deerhunter emerged to an extended instrumental passage before dialing it way back for the titular track from Cryptograms – unfortunately it was a bit difficult to register the song due to the abundant effects on the guitars. Next up was a trio of tracks from their new Cate Le Bon-produced album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?: “Death in Midsummer,” “No One’s Sleeping” and “What Happens to People?” Deerhunter clearly know where their bread is buttered and they leaned heavily on songs from Halcyon Digest to fill out their 18 song set. First up was “Helicopter,” the choppy and emotional centerpiece of that album. Dressed a bit like a middle-aged librarian with oversized glasses, chinos and a crisp white collared shirt, singer Bradford Cox was exhilarating as ever, strutting across the stage and stretching his lanky frame over the mic stand when he would play guitar. The next Halcyon Digest track was a spirited take on the upbeat “Revival,” with its tongue in cheek exclamations of “I’m saved / I’m saved!” It was easily the best performance of the night up until that point.
While Cox is masterful on the stage and owns it, his counterpart in Deerhunter Lockett Pundt unfortunately is not quite as engaging. As wonderful a songwriter, guitarist and singer as he is, he clearly doesn’t take to the spotlight in the same manner as the band’s flamboyant frontman. So the band’s take on “Desire Lines,” which features him on vocals, it was hard to get too excited by the performance. The slow, melancholy “Sailing” saw Cox back at center stage. The set concluded with two more Halcyon Digest highlights, the anthemic “Coronado” and the more solemn, yet still celebratory, “He Would Have Laughed.” The latter song was dedicated to the late Jay Reatard and the emotion on this one is still palpable even over a decade after his untimely death. The encore began with a visit back to the opening tracks of Microcastle with “Cover Me (Slowly)” sequeing perfectly into the chilling “Agoraphobia,” which features lilting chord progressions but disturbing lyrics about being voluntarily imprisoned by a master. The night concluded with the bluesy “Monomania.”
While Deerhunter and Dirty Projectors haven’t really returned to their pinnacle of a few years ago, they’re two of the most experienced and professional groups in alternative music. Yes, their last two or three albums were a bit of a letdown in that they weren’t simply transcendent like Bitte Orca or Halcyon Digest, they are still very much above-average albums that 99 percent of indie bands wish they could create. It would be completely unsurprising that in the next decade one or both of these groups return to the peak of alternative music.
Photo Credit: Mauricio Alvarado