Caribou proves that you’re better off at home (7/12)

This is the last time you’ll have to hear about the potential issues performing for free in a large public space presents to a relatively obscure indie band.

This is the last time you’ll have to hear about dancing hipsters. And yes, this is the last time you’ll have to decide what kinds of drugs they took.

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh here. I admit that reviewing these concerts at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion has gotten old fairly quickly. I feel as though I go to see the same show each time, save for a slight variation in the music.

Even as I took my seat I knew more or less how the evening would play out:

1. The opening act would be mediocre at best.

2. The headlining act and their fans would try to make the best of a non-ideal situation.

3. The hipsters would dance.

Well, I was right.

The Staten Island-based Budos Band opened with a hybrid of afrobeat and funk. The level of musicianship was quite good. The guitar and horn arrangements were impeccably timed and not too bombastic. The keyboard melodies contributed delicate texture and the polyrhythms energy. However, the group’s workmanship–like approach and disinterest in their audience—as far as interaction goes, there are times when a shout-out or two to Chi-town won’t cut it—drained the music of its natural vitality. This, coupled with security’s insistence on keeping attendees in their seats, made for lackluster energy on all fronts. Tight security measures or not, the music stands alone. And if The Budos Band prove one thing’s possible, it’s that you can be vibrant and underwhelming all at once.

And speaking of vibrant and underwhelming…

The latter is a tough combination to pull off, but on-stage Caribou manage it.

Daniel Snaith’s “folktronica” outfit has been pushing the aesthetic envelope for years now, but their most recent effort, Swim, finds the group ditching the psychedelic expansiveness of previous efforts in favor of cool minimalism. It’s a thoughtfully crafted though ultimately forgettable piece of work. At least it’s danceable. That being said, I should have known what to expect. I decided to give Caribou the benefit of the doubt anyway. Maybe they would surprise after all, I thought.

In my review of The Thermals’ performance last week at the Pavilion I remarked how it isn’t necessarily a bad thing if a group plays their songs note-for-note, never deviating from the original cuts. After all, fans come to shows to hear songs they heard on records. To paraphrase myself, if the material is solid, so what if it’s played faithfully? Does delivery even matter?

How an artist changes their songs to fit different environments is indicative not just of talent but of an ability to improvise, to expand and, in many cases, improve upon compositions. This is one of the many joys of performance: the chance for audiences to hear songs evolve. The excitement at these kinds of shows is palpable.

Toward the end of the set a good friend of mine remarked how he was disappointed at the lack of improvisation. He then said something along the lines of, “They should experiment more. They’re Caribou.”  At the risk of stating the obvious, this summed up the evening to a tee.

A group known for such wild and evocative recordings should be able to do wonders in a live context. However, Caribou approached their songs in a manner not dissimilar from The Budos Band. Daniel Snaith and Co. charged through a setlist consisting primarily of new material, with “Melody Day” thrown in for good measure. The four were perfectly content to play faithful renditions of their songs while standing in a circle, doing little to engage the audience while poorly sequenced images—the same spiral patterns found on the latest album cover—were projected onto a large screen behind them.

Ironically, the crowd was, for the most part, very warm and receptive to this approach. It was clear that most in the audience had actually come to hear Caribou play, a rare feat for an artist putting on a free show in the Windy City, as you are probably well aware of by now.

The haunting use of reverb and subtle arrangements that color Swim should have sounded even stronger given the excellent acoustics of the venue. However, percussion overpowered nearly every other element, including Snaith’s already strained vocals. His voice does not have a commanding presence to begin with, and the bombastic percussion, especially when coupled with the massive surroundings of the Pavilion, underscored its limits.

Of course, the evening was painfully scripted. Security kept a tight watch on would-be dancers, so many convened toward the lawn and did just that, perking up when the group finally decided to play “Odessa”.

Things seemed to look up during “Sun”, with its swelling melodies and delays taking on power unheard up until that point. Then I realized that they simply turned the volume up a little.

Live music is wonderful for the multitude of experiences it entails, especially being able to hear your favorite songs change shape and see an artist in a new light. This generally makes for interesting stories to tell. Then again, sometimes it makes no difference at all. Sometimes you’re better off at home with a choice album and a high-end stereo system. I really wish I had opted for the latter this time.


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