all words: William Alberque
all photos: Julian Vu
M83 played an incredible early and late show at the Black Cat on Friday, rewarding two sold out audiences with an evening of incredible noise. Active Child was near perfection (yet again), but the early set was truncated due to time constraints.
I’ve never been to see a band that was playing twice in the same venue on the same night. I suppose a confluence of factors – the first night of the tour, the speed with which it sold out, Halloween weekend – all convinced this enormously anticipated double bill to double down. I was glad they did. An anonymous benefactor let me stay for the second set, and I was even more pleased – I really wanted to see the full Active Child set in front of a sold-out crowd. And M83 are always a pleasure – I first saw them here with Ulrich Schnauss so many years ago.
Active Child are sound checking as we file in – the doors opened at 18:00 for the early show and the crowd is still finding the coat check for the unseasonably cold evening. It’s not as packed as I thought a double sold-out show would be, but it gets progressively more crowded as the band begins. They’re a three piece tonight, with drums, bass, and lead vocals/harp/keyboard. The band starts slow, beautiful, and lead singer and harpist Pat Grossi starts off with gorgeous harp and rolling drums. The song builds into massive drama before it subsides.
I never thought of it before, but Active Child sound a lot like a cross between In the Nursery without the pretension and a male version of Bjork. Grossi must be sick of the place – this is Active Child’s fifth DC performance in less than two years, and the first time on the Cat’s main stage. I think it’s “High Priestess” to start, and while I don’t like the treatment on Grossi’s vocals (think later-era Knife), the song certainly fills the room with warmth. The second song (I think it’s “Sword and Shield”) features cracking Homogenic-esque percussion and all the instruments drop away, focusing on the vocals, before the music comes bursting back while Grossi’s delivery soars over the top.
The audience has me a bit confused. A lot of costumes, a roughly equal number of bros, including a fair number of baseball caps – one fellow is wearing a backwards one that advertises Italian carmaker Alpha Romeo. I don’t really know what to make of that. Another track of beautiful synth drum rolls and gorgeous harp reminds me of why they’re amazing. Grossi moves over from harp to keyboards for the final two songs. His delivery switches to a blue-eyed soul – could be “Hanging On” – and it’s perfect, mid-tempo beats and slow, soaring vocals, with backup vocals. There’s only one more, and it’s another soul number, with an almost funk bassline, and has the crowd perfectly poised before it ends, suddenly, and leaves the stage.
I’m shocked at the abrupt end – and I think the look of enormous disappointment could be seen from across the bar. I wanted more – specifically, “I’m in Your Church at Night,” or “Ceremony,” or…just more. Fortunately, my disappointment was short lived.
M83 come out and set up as quick as they can – the intro music starts and the backdrop lights up with a cross between 80s neon and digital patterns. The vast improvement to their sound is the wise addition of a second female co-lead vocalist.
Anthony Gonzalez is immensely talented, but my early listens to the album left me a little unimpressed – live, the dual vocals means every song is much, much stronger. The opening high notes of “Midnight City” grab the crowd right away with massed keyboard lines and it’s all hands in the air for dancing with abandon.
The sunshine explosions of “Teen Angst” keep the crowd moving, and the increasingly packed room is as energized as you’re likely to see indie fans. The majesty of the song’s end is made so much better by the massed vocals that I’m actually relieved when it ends and they can talk to the crowd. They remind us that this is the first show of the tour, and they’re damn excited to be here. We are too, by the whooping and hollering that greet “Kim and Jessie” (and, I admit that I contributed).
The live drums and dual vocals raise it to the next level. Then, when the song breaks in the middle and comes roaring back, the crowd goes bonkers. One of my co-conspirators at the bar, Aaron, is standing on his stool, jaw dropped at the majesty of what we’re seeing. We share amazed smiles at what we’re witnessing.
New track “Year One, One UFO” is up next, and it sounds nothing like anything M83 have ever done. It’s almost…Arcade Fire–organic, warm, galloping, a lovely warm hug of a song. Gonzalez recounts that he’s played here enough times for it to feel like home, and the audience returns the love. “Wait” follows, and it’s a soft, gentle caress of a song, with pretty keys and strings, and whispered vocals.
“We Own the Sky” re-energizes the room with enormous noise and full female vocals, followed by the amazing “Steve McQueen,” reminding me a bit of a fuller Active Child tracks with its swooping high male vocals. “Claudia Lewis” follows with its gentle drum machine opener and a very conventional middle section before it goes to a wholly unexpected noise outro. “A Guitar and a Heart” is next, followed by “Outro.”
“Outro” is a gorgeous instrumental, full of emotion and beauty, and a Mexican woman is talking to me throughout about social justice and liberty. A confusing but beautiful experience. But, of course, the song isn’t over yet – and it explodes into Mogwai-esque stately beauty before dropping back off to a stunning piano coda.
The encore returns to Saturdays=Youth with the amazing dueling vocals of “Skin of the Night” and the euphoric rush of “Couleurs.” It’s all handclaps and cheap drum machine sounds to start before it builds into a Kraftwerk-meets-Mogwai middle section, disappearing and then roaring back to life – with almost Friendly Fires-worthy percussion – one last time before it all goes away.
A little disappointed that “Run Into Flowers” was missing, but I’m left breathless and thrilled, and clear the room. After all, I get to go back upstairs and see it all over again. What a night. Happy Halloween, indeed.