Ghostland Observatory choose lasers over precision in San Francisco (8/20)

It’s a pleasant impossibility to dislike a band with top-notch work ethic. In the past three years or so, Ghostland Observatory has probably appeared in more of your weekly Ticketmaster alerts than your local AC/DC cover band. Without having released any new material (Codename: Rondo forthcoming), the Austin electro duo has gone from playing San Francisco’s 1,000-capacity Mezzanine club in 2008 to the Warfield theater, more than twice size of the Mezzanine, in 2010. The upgrade is well earned (although you can tell apart those who were there two years ago from those who are “new to the tribe,” as frontman Aaron Behrens put it Friday night at The Warfield).

So what are these guys all about? Whatever they’ve done to expand their live following, it’s worked so far. And they’re huge in Texas.

When someone describes the Ghostland Observatory live experience, no matter who that person is, there is one word you can expect him to utter every time: lasers. This is not an accident; the lasers are stunning, even the primary reason to watch the show. The lasers and smoke, combined with the incessant flashing of strobe lights and, of course, regular old house lights, are best enjoyed from the back – which presents the problem that the rest of the show is easily more fun from the front, with Aaron Behrens’ bell-bottoms within arm’s reach and teenage girls threatening to unhinge their bras.

But back to lasers. Are they the only reason to watch Ghostland Observatory?

Yes and no. The band, or at least Behrens – who has ditched the Willie Nelson braids but still wears his sunglasses at night – is raw energy. On Friday night, only the second date of the current tour, Behrens stopped moving only to pick up a guitar or assist instrumentalist Thomas Turner with his synthesizer. Turner didn’t have much stage presence, but that might have had something to do with him doing all important things. And the sorcerer cape did nothing to diminish the spectacle.

Some of the more enthusiastic members of the crowd could have put on the show by themselves. Unlike many previous shows at The Warfield, there was no security barrier in front of the stage, which meant crowd participation and everyone knew it. The braver/more medicated ones politely took their turns pissing Behrens off, climbing up, singing, dancing, groping, and unsuccessfully stage diving (evidently, the EDM crowd has yet to embrace the idea of catching a diver). Behrens let the antics continue until someone started messing with Turner, at which point he went backstage to wake up the security guard.

All of this is the “no” – if you needed something to do Friday night and John Mayer wasn’t up your alley, this wasn’t a half-bad way to spend it. Then again, like the lasers, it was all essentially a distraction from what’s really supposed to matter, the music. Frankly, the music wasn’t all that stunning.

The set had its moments, no doubt. In fact, if you were there just to dance, you got your money’s worth. Some of the new songs, particularly (the duo played four of them), bode well for the new album. One song (which a fan has nicknamed “Listen”) put a stop to the piercing, Andrew Stockdale-does-Freddie Mercury crooning Behrens is known for, featuring instead a somehow very catchy spoken-word delivery (think LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge”). Another mid-tempo track (also as of yet untitled) closed the main set and was the highlight of the show. Additionally, Robotique Majestique track “Heavy Heart”, along with the “Opening Credits” intro, is four-something minutes of pure bliss when heard in a live setting.

Following that track with fellow Robotique song “The Band Marches On” was a bad choice, however; it reversed any buildup that had occurred during the previous four minutes. The other major misstep was spending too much time on a new droning guitar/synth jam-out. The song consisted of Behrens playing two chords while Turner appeared to do something, but whatever it was was drowned out. Anyone who didn’t respect Fuck Buttons before this will finally understand why they’re good at what they do.

The sound was off all night – not drastically, but when it was noticeable it was painful. It was most noticeable during “Sad Sad City”, on which the bass was at a 10 and the treble at a two, just loud enough to sneak into your consciousness. Drowning out Turner is a bit of a problem, because while Behrens screaming over a drum machine is great in theory, he’s just not a good enough singer to make much happen without the caped crusader to back him up.

So, it all comes down to lasers. You should see Ghostland Observatory because those lasers are really cool. Chances are it was just an off-night anyway; understandable considering Ghostland Observatory has been working nonstop for three years. But either way, yeah, lasers.

Photography by Madhu Peralta.


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