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Monday, January 31, 2011

Friday Night: Deerhoof, Slowly Maturing, Still Gets Pretty Weird at Great American Music Hall

Posted By on Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Deerhoof at Great American Music Hall on Friday night.
  • Deerhoof at Great American Music Hall on Friday night.

Ben Butler and Mousepad

January 28, 2011

@ Great American Music Hall

Better than: San Jose tourist attractions.

To be sure, the term "mid-career art-rockers" -- one that fits sometime Bay Area indie heroes Deerhoof like a permanently glued beanie to the head -- is a rarity. Sixteen years is a long time for a band to resist the temptations of accessibility and commercially viable song structures. The band's latest album, Deerhoof Vs. Evil -- for which the band held an album-release concert Friday night at Great American Music Hall -- is confirmation that Deerhoof's four members have few plans for pursuing a musical path without art at its heart. In other words, they are still very, very weird.

We're not talking maladjusted weird -- though there is that amongst the Deerhoof personnel. We're talking Winchester Mystery House weird, especially in compositional terms. In fact, much like the mad, bedeviled Winchester widow, Deerhoof builds fantastically surreal houses of Magic cards.

Just as stairways and hallways shrivel into abrupt endings and myriad colors and materials are arranged with no thought for functionality, Deerhoof's architecture is equally nonsensical: riffs are scattered and fleeting; melodies are alien to their juxtaposition; narrative is deferred; identity is plural. But in all that sonic chaos lies moments of unchecked beauty, no matter how in-their-own-world Deerhoof's four pieces seem.

Satomi Matsuzaki, Deerhoof's mystical sprite of a lead singer and bassist, came onstage in formal attire, glowing in a pink Quincinera-esque gown and bedazzled eye make-up. She's lost little of her charm since she first joined the band in 1996 as a musical novice and native of Japan. Her accent remains thick, but endearingly so (her "thank yous" after each song are a faithful reminder). Her coy, playful lyricism contrasts starkly to just about every element of the band's sonic oeuvre. She dances, too -- like a Kindergarten-teaching cheerleader. 

Deerhoof's Satomi Matsuzaki
  • Deerhoof's Satomi Matsuzaki
To her left stood three familiar men dressed in matching comics-art T-shirts. Guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez seemed to be in a permanent state of experimentation, sharing lead and rhythm duties. Their work is haphazard but never hazardous, shifting from chord to counterintuitive scales to minor key noodling on a whim, occasionally bridged by some hallucinatory fingerpainting. There's usually a payoff, too, when they stop considering the fringes of sound and just rock out for a bit. These moments are appreciated.

Of the new material dutifully exhibitioned, "Super Duper Rescue Heads!" won the audience over most convincingly. Its sparkling intro is as close to a pop sensibility as the band gets on Deerhoof Vs. Evil, thanks to a dancing, starry keyboard riff and a heavy, thumping bass. Of course, the melody is quickly forfeited in favor of idiosyncratic turns of scrap sound. It's a reminder that bands with the most twisted musical vantage points often have the most spirited takes on pop traditions.

But back to that twisted vantage point we were talking about. Another new track, "The Merry Barracks," worked helter-skelter drums with an equally percussive distorted guitar chord. Add another scratching guitar riff and a dreaming refrain or two, and voila -- it was another savory oddity.

Unsurprisingly, the (sort of) leader of this band operates on a level detatched from normal human existence, at least while onstage. Drummer/occasional vocalist Greg Saunier addressed the crowd multiple times, assuming (or possibly maintaining) a robotic voice to thank us for coming out, albeit in a very roundabout, humorous way. Think Dana Carvey's Garth as a "Scooby Doo" character. Later, in between encores, Saunier revealed the Deerhoof heart: "This is but Day 2 in our eight-month trek around the world, and audience-wise I don't see how it will be anything but downhill from here." 

Deerhoof's Greg Saunier
  • Deerhoof's Greg Saunier
It was a refreshing reminder that there is a significant element of sentimentality to the group. The initial closer of the night, before the wave of encores, was "Perfect Me," from Friend Opportunity, which tells a tragic tale: "You of no home, of no family / You of no clan, of no history / Meet me, meet me, over the mountain."

Other old favorites such as "Milk Man" and set opener "Dummy Discards a Heart" (with the sublimely simplistic refrain: "Sing to the East / Sing to the West / Sing to the one you love the best") made similar, daringly sentimental impressions, and also appealed to the widest segment of this devoted Deerhoof crowd.

Opener Ben Butler and Mousepad came to us physically from Scotland and Germany, but ideologically the duo hails from the synth-funk houses of the '80s. They introduced themselves by saying "it's ok to dance," but not many did.

Ben Butler & Mousepad
  • Ben Butler & Mousepad
The kitsch value might have been a bit overwhelming to this crowd, but that didn't mean these two didn't have a handle on their sound. It was something Leisure Suit Larry would have strutted to, a furiously yazzy freakout of cluster electro. No vocals were necessary; the Korg board did much of the work. Loud, erratic synths overlapped seizuring fills, and Ben Butler howled at the end of each song to throw the vocals a bone.


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