At my core, I still believe I'm a punk. And while sometimes it's hard to reconcile that belief when I'm staring happily at a stage full of sweater-clad kids incorporating trumpet fanfares or string swells into their indie pop, there are concerts when I know that I'm definitely in the wrong place. Times when I realise a band's vision is the antithesis of what speaks to me about music. Times when I should just walk out of wherever I am, and make my way to the nearest copy of Never Mind the Bollocks. This was one of those nights.
True to advertising, the club opened its doors at 8pm, and sent out opening act Sandro Perri at 9pm. Sixty-two people were in the audience. Most, I gather, were like me – entirely unaware of Perri's musical career. A few were diehard fans who seemed more enthused for the opener than the headliner. It's us vs. them, I thought.
Sandro Perri is a composer, a producer, and an avant-garde musician. He's released dozens of records (with all of his recent work on Constellation Records – home of Godspeed You Black Emperor, Colin Stetson and other genre-pushing artists), each exploring music without boundaries. Perri wishes to go boldly where no man has gone before. Sadly, he does so by baking in musical ingredients that make for a rather acrid cake.
On this tour, Perri has brought along a band of collaborators to provide drums (Dan Gaucher), synthesiser/bass (Mike Smith), keyboards/synthesisers (Matt McLaren), and sax/flute/wind synthesiser (Joseph Shabason). Perri himself plays guitar and provides vocals. Detailing the parts are easy; unpacking the band's sound is much more difficult. First off, Perri's playing is heavily jazz-influenced. In fact, his note choices often move so far to left field, one wonders if they're composed at all. Broken chords and odd progressions were persistent throughout his set, with the first few songs also overwhelmed by the free-wheeling percussion of Gaucher, and the similarly curious note choices of both synthesiser players. At the best of times, these polyrhythms combined with Sandro's clean voice and short phrasings, brought to mind an overly adventurous Paul Simon. But only during the first few songs; after that, the quartet was joined by Shabason, whose wind instruments would define the rest of the set. From this point forward, well, to quote James Ingram, "It's mellow, but not smooth – kinda shitty."
While the remainder of the band's set occasionally recalled the progressive elements Steely Dan, more often it felt like the middle-of-the-road '70s jazz fusion of Chick Corea or even Chuck Mangione. Although the persistent disco beats of the latter weren't quite as pronounced, and the odd scales played by the flutist were never as smooth as the former, the band's music was undeniably light rock. While I can appreciate the jazz excursions of Sea and Cake, Tortoise, or Gastr del Sol, or even the disco flirtation of Stereolab, this made-for-AM-radio retelling was too much. When a couple came forward to slow dance and make out during one number, I quickly dropped to the foetal position, rocked, and hummed Fear's "I Don't Care About You" until the band's 50-minute set was over.
Between acts I began to wonder if the whole night might not have been a mistake. Destroyer has written some incredible, bombastic pop songs, but the band's yacht rock-influenced last album was a disappointing stylistic shift. Which Destroyer would we get, the adult contemporary Destroyer of Kaputt or the rugged, churning Destroyer felt throughout the '00s? As the stage began to fill up with musicians, I had to worry. When the eighth musician happened to be Joseph Shabason, all hope was lost.
Destroyer is the project of Daniel Bejar. Period. He is also its frontman, in that he writes all of the band's music, all of its lyrics, sings them, and stands at the front of the stage. But let's be clear, he has no interaction with the audience. Other than his dry, informational "We have one song left" announcement before the band's final number, he didn't speak to the crowd. Even more, I don't believe he ever looked at the audience. For the majority of the set, he stood leaning on a shortened microphone stand as if it were a cane, with his chin nodded to his chest. I'd have assumed he was reading lyrics from a teleprompter if his eyes hadn't been closed the entire set. Between songs, and during any instrumental interlude, he would kneel down and take a long, satisfied gulp from a waiting can of Modelo. While I wasn't close enough to count, he surely made his way through three or four cans during his hour-long set. Based on his contented response to each slug, alcohol might be the only way Bejar copes with touring.
All this is amusing (in a curious sort of way), but it's not exactly news. Bejar's reluctant presence on stage is such a known commodity that a Twitter account has sprung up to provide a parody of his inner monologue. No one believes it's Bejar's banter that makes Destroyer is such an amazing project. The jury, however, is split when it comes to Bejar's obtuse lyrics. Bejar's rhyming stanzas leave so much up to interpretation. For some they are poetry painting evocative scenes that needn't be synchronous. For others they're mind-numbing nonsense. Since I'm not really a lyrics guy, I don't have a vote in the matter. That leaves a heavy burden on composition and musical prowess.
On this tour Destroyer's songs are brought to life by an impressive eight-piece band. Trumpet (processed by so much outboard gear as to become washes of sound rather than distinct notes) and saxophone dominated much of the newer material. In fact, the saxophone provided such a persistent wail that, when combined with the twinkling synthesiser, I was sure that I was in an '80s movie soundtracked by David Foster. Acoustic guitar provided a nice palette for most of the set, while another guitarist played stray Stratocaster-worthy leads to provide rare moments of muscle. Although Bejar did pick up a tambourine on occasion, he played no guitar.
With these tools, the band performed a high-gloss set that included seven songs from its most recent album, two songs from 2008's Trouble in Dreams, and three from 2006's Destroyer's Rubies. I felt vindicated when that album's "European Oils" drew the loudest cheers of the night. After playing for an hour, Destroyer took a short break before the audience's calls brought the band back for closer "Bay of Pigs." While this lengthy composition swells and stretches in ways that are far from slick or corporate, it was still disappointing to end the set without a single crashing drum fill or roaring power chord. I didn't expect Bejar to come to the stage with a safety pin through his cheek, but it would have been nice to get a bit of the bile from the band's earlier catalog. Sadly, it wasn't there, and I probably shouldn't have been either.