All photos: Dakota Fine, from last year’s MPP performance
For a band playing in the venue that shares the name of their best album, Animal Collective sure acted nonchalant. They may have scattered to Portugal, Los Angeles and the District, but the Baltimore quartet returned home to the Charm City last year to write and record their ninth studio album, Centipede Hz. Compared to the dreamy Merriweather Post Pavilion and kaleidoscopic Strawberry Jam, Centipede is a frantic exchange of energy, the maximal extension of the group’s decade-long diversions into folk, psychedelica and noise pop. The stage setup mimicked the new album’s cover, the band backed by inflatable Maniac Mansion tentacles, playing inside a glowing skeleton smile.
Given their relative obscurity from mainstream culture, Animal Collective seems like a band that should be booked at the 9:30 Club or Ram’s Head Live, not at a large outdoor venue on a school night. Then again, the collective did play a sold-out show at the venue on a warm July night last year. However, the combination of torrential downpours, a region busy with election season and mixed reactions to their new album meant those who made the journey to Columbia on a moist Tuesday evening were limited to superfans, stoners, and music critics.
Maybe their nonchalance was because Merriweather was deserted. The pavilion was less than half full. Less than 200 people parked themselves on the damp lawn. The lax security meant that everyone got a free seat upgrade and marijuana cigarettes were openly consumed. My heart goes out to the poor fellow a few rows behind me who was having a hissy fit because he left his lighter in the car and no one around him was a smoker.
Micachu and the Shapes opened. The young UK trio, led by androgynous singer/guitarist Mica Levi, warmed up the sparse crowd with selections from their latest album Never. I entered the concert with only a brief knowledge of Micachu’s music. If Animal Collective are an acquired taste, Micachu and the Shapes are an acquired hate.
Levi’s cockney songs were tuneless, the feeling and emotion sucked out. Marc Pell’s clonking on a wooden box annoyed, as did Raisa Khan’s clumsy keyboard stabs. Quirky tracks like “Lips” were met with confusing stares by an audience anticipating psychedelic-pop jams, not repetitive, experimental art rock from Inbetweeners extras. (Their music was not fun enough to be worthy of a Skins reference.)
Levi’s obtuse vocals was on full display for “Low Dogg,” as she put down her guitar to murmur disinterested lyrics like, “Even if I turn my back / You twist my neck until I snap.” Their only redeeming moments were ending their set with a gnarly freakout and complimenting the audience on their fragrant marijuana. Animal Collective, one of the more critically acclaimed and successful independent rock bands of our generation, could have–and should have–attracted far better talent for their tour. Maybe a killer opener would have got more asses in the seats.
The group took the stage shortly after 9 pm, starting into lazy rendition of “Rosie Oh” off Centipede Hz. This was one of the few Panda Bear-sung songs of an evening dominated by Avey Tare’s yelping and spastic singing. Single “Today’s Supernatural” got the growing audience excited, the strobe lights and giant teeth flickering for each trill of “let-let-let-let-let-let-let-let-let-let-let-let go!” You know damn well the crowd popped when Tare sang. “Met you in Baltimore laughing so loud / But have you seen the clouds?” I wonder anyone realized the dramatic irony, given the weather’s effect on the situation.
Guitarist Deakin, clad in a Ghostbusters-style jumpsuit, took lead vocals for “Wide Eyed,” one of the group’s few straightforward verse-chorus-verse songs in their catalogue. One of the highlights of the evening was an incredible rendition of “Lion In a Coma” off Merriweather Post Pavilion, accented by Geologist’s sampled twangs and Panda Bear’s manic percussion.
After the stomp of “Moonjock,” the evening slowed down a bit, ambling through ambient-tinged renditions of “Pulleys” and “New Torn Burnout,” two of Centipede’s weaker songs. For a band with a deep and diverse catalogue, nine of evening’s fifteen songs were drawn from Centipede Hz, ignoring standout tracks as “Fireworks,” “What Would I Want? Sky” and “Summertime Clothes,” not to mention all material made made prior to 2007. No doubt that many longtime AnCo fans in attendance would have craved to hear “We Tigers” or at least one song—any song—off Feels instead of boring non-album cuts like “Honeycomb” or “Cobwebs.”
These oversights aside, the group closed its main set with a swaggering trio of danceable, synth-driven songs. Much hippie dancing (guys: air-hand stabbing, girls: twirling) was done to “Monkey Riches,” bolstered by Deakin’s guitarwork. The transition from “Monkey Riches” into “Brother Sport” was of particular note, Avey Tare’s piercing squelches complimented by Panda Bear’s belches to “Open up your, open up your, open up your throat.” The surprise performance of “Peacebone” from Strawberry Jam, featured Avey Tare to getting up from his keyboard, hopping around the stage, screaming in the faces of the very high audience members leaning on the guard rail.
Prior to the group’s encore, Avey Tare finally addressed the audience after almost 90 minutes. He said, “It feels good to be home.” The crowd applauded and the group played three more songs, including a heroic version of “My Girls” that got the limited few in attendance to join a chorus wishing for four walls and adobe slats. The light pulses for each “Woo!” in “My Girls” revealed an audience in rapture. The band was consistently great, but recognition is due to the staging and lighting designers who transformed hokey inflatables and bizarre video transmission into a dazzling experience.
The group ended the night with the final song off Centipede Hz, “Amanita,.” After a slow build-up, “Amanita” descends into a double-timed maelstrom where Avey Tare calls out, “What are you gonna do/ Go into the forest/ Until I can’t remember my name!” Just before eleven, they finished and rushed off stage to loud applause. On the whole, the group probably spoke twenty words to their hometown audience all night. I’d like to think the reason why Animal Collective’s performance seemed so rushed was not because they were disappointed there were so few people in attendance, but because they had to find out how the Orioles were doing in the AL East chase.