Height With Friends
Chester Endersby Gwazda
Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012
Great American Music Hall
Better than: Girl Talk; every party I attended between the ages of 7 and 15.
There are only a handful of live shows today that get singled out as truly unique experiences, nights you simply must have before hanging up your Chucks or plugs: The Flaming Lips, Girl Talk, Kanye or Jay-Z, maybe even Gwar. Dan Deacon is one of the more recent names to be added to this group, but unlike the others, his music in a normal listening context isn't always approachable. What makes the live experience so much better?
Well, it likely starts before the night really begins. A Deacon show feels a little Burning Man-esque: costumes of all sorts, a high probability of substances, and seemingly no inhibitions from anyone within earshot. And Deacon embraces this communal hangout himself: he's out on the floor, taking pictures with fans as late as between the first and second acts.
But as soon as his music hits, you quickly sense this won't be a normal show. Even during what would eventually be the most straightforward point of the evening (the first two songs, beginning with "The Crystal Cat"), a mosh pit that would make Black Flag proud starts out of nowhere. The floor at Great American Music Hall feels as flimsy as an elevator with several (heavy) funnymen jumping in sync. (This is clearly not the place to have a camera, so the moshing waves mercifully brush me to the outside. It's a little disorienting, and good luck picking out lyrics to identify a song over the beats and electronics, but a Deacon show proves to be one where you won't need to be fighting for space near the stage.)
The night goes on, and Deacon feels more and more like the world's best Bar Mitzvah or birthday DJ -- at times making the music entirely secondary and encouraging the show (and joy) to come solely from an audience embracing his antics. There are giant dance circles complete with two individuals dancing-off in the center, or entire songs where you follow a stranger aimlessly while holding the back of their head. Before the electronic-meets-tribal pulse of "Crash Jam," he instructs the room to adopt a hive mentality, mimicking the movements of the two queen bees placed in the middle of a crowd he's perfectly split against the walls. "Wham City" is precluded by a brief intermission of a parroting game ("I'll make a sound off-mic, you must repeat it as accurately -- duration, tone, timbre -- and as quickly as you can") to "Biggie Hat Was Ice Cream Time." Why? Because the Deacon crew is cuing up the technology to perform what he calls "the most Metallica-thing ever" on this night: linking up his smartphone-wielding crowd to the stage using the band's new iPhone app. The house and stage lights come all the way down and Deacon's app turns all participants into a light source that responds to all synth actions throughout the song.
The most impressive planned activity for the evening, however, has to be Deacon's "Arm Section" of the show. It's a simple enough concept: with everyone to the front of the room, two individuals are selected to stand near the front door and form an arm bridge above their heads. Dance your way underneath and then add yourself to this human structure. It's literally a kids' game, but Deacon inspires a room of several hundred hipsters of all different shapes and sizes to participate. The human arms bridge is formed instantly and it goes out the front door, heads left down O'Farrell, takes another left down Polk, then sneaks through the GAMH backdoor on Olive Street. This may be the only show where fans willingly dance and scream through the Tenderloin after 11 p.m., loving every second of it.
This is a hype-confirming experience for any fellow Deacon newbies, and it likely isn't even among his most memorable nights. Nearby fans could be overheard strategizing preshow about where the best space to stand was, anticipating that Deacon would haul his equipment into the middle of floor as his lure dictates. But when he addresses the crowd preshow, Deacon reminisces that the first show he ever played on a stage was at Great American Music Hall (because one entire arm was in a cast at the time). He didn't leave this space all night outside of doing a check-up during the "Arms Section," but the experience was no worse for it.
Music is seemingly the last thing you notice about an evening of Dan Deacon. You're likely sore from movements both planned and unplanned. Or you're still smiling over any one moment of his banter -- dedicating the entire evening to the compassion of Dr. Evil to start, ending with a passionate stump speech about voting and Prop 37 over "USA I: Is a Monster." But it's no easy task to keep an audience happy, let alone participatory, throughout an entire show. What once seemed like repetitive, noisy bleeps now feel like carefully orchestrated rhythms set to tempos with one purpose: have fun, keep the energy high. Mission accomplished.
Your host for the evening: Deacon's master of ceremonies for the evening was a comedian named Peter O'Connell, who lost the crowd right before Deacon's set by offering a few rape and misogynistic jokes. Sad really, because early the guy had a few decent moments of out-of-sync humor earlier:
"Why don't dogs eat at Applebees? Because they can eat shit in the backyard." Followed by: "What's funnier than a Grandma falling down escalator? A dog in a funny hat. Got you, another dog joke."
And for the local humor: "So we're here hanging in the Tenderloin, I noticed a lot of drug users near the CVS. I guess they're also addicted to savings."
1. The Crystal Cat
2. [Busy defending camera inside spontaneous mosh pit]
3. Konono Ripoff No. 1
5. Crash Jam
6. Guilford Avenue Bridge (*Songs 6 & 7 made up the "Arms Section," so I only caught the beginning of 6 and the end of 7)
8. True Thrush
9. Biggie Hat Was Ice Cream Time
10. Wham City
11. USA I: Is a Monster
12. USA II: The Great American Desert
13. USA IV: Manifest