Sahan Jayasuriya

Dirty Projectors make a triumphant return to the Pabst

The critically-acclaimed band brought their unique brand of warped pop to Milwaukee Sunday, touring in support of new album Swing Lo Magellan.

By - Oct 1st, 2012 03:08 pm
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Dirty Projectors returned to Milwaukee to play the Pabst Theater. All photos by CJ Foeckler.

Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors have been at it for the better part of the decade, gaining considerable attention in 2007 with the release of Rise Above, a reinterpretation of the classic Black Flag album. In 2009, the band released Bitte Orca to even more favorable reviews, including a spot in the top half of many year-end “best of” lists. And in July, Dirty Projectors returned with their newest full length, Swing Lo Magellan – a further exploration of the eclectic sounds found on their previous releases. Their unique and inimitable sound filled the Pabst Theater Sunday evening.

Having never seen the band before, I was curious as to what their live show would be like. Dirty Projectors’ music is dense and poly-rhythmic, filled with odd time signatures, elaborate vocal arrangements and intricate guitar work – all easily accomplishable in a studio setting, but not always as achievable live. But the moment the band took the stage and launched into Swing Lo Magellan‘s title track, two things became very apparent: they were prepared to pull off all of those complexities live, and they were going to pull them off flawlessly.

Lead singer and guitarist Dave Longstreth’s vocals echoed through the walls of the Pabst, enhanced by the venue’s incredible acoustics. While Longstreth’s vocal abilities were nothing short of fantastic, the truly impressive vocal work belongs to the ladies of the group –guitarist Amber Coffman, keyboardist Olga Bell and percussionist Haley Dekle – whose voices intertwined to weave a sonic tapestry of complex, beautiful three-part harmonies.

The most impressive vocal feat of the night came during “Beautiful Mother”, a track off of Mount Wittenberg Orca, Dirty Projectors’ 2011 collaboration with Icelandic electronic innovator and swan enthusiast Björk. Coffman, Bell and Dekle’s voices rushed in from across the stage, coming together in a lightning fast yodel-like harmony.

Bassist Nat Baldwin and drummer Michael Johnson laid down a solid rhythmic foundation, effortlessly shifting from solid back beats to spastic time changes, filled out by Bell’s lush keyboard playing and Longstreth and Coffman’s sharp and angular guitar work. While many musicians choose to display their abilities with arrogance and ego, Longstreth and co. did so with humbleness, unafraid to show their audience that they truly enjoy performing.

The set list was primarily comprised of songs from Magellan, with tracks like “Offspring are Blank” sounding even larger live than they do on the album. Other highlights included Bitte Orca favorites “Cannibal Resource” and “No Intention”, the whirring “See What She’s Seeing” and the vintage soul homage “Gun Has No Trigger”. While the group’s recorded output maintains a consistent level of tightness and precision, the songs took on a new life onstage. Drums were heavier, guitars were dirtier and the vocals had a very organic quality to them that can only come with live performance. Over the course of an hour, the band ripped through 12 songs, briefly leaving the stage, only to return for a brief three song encore. The encore’s highlight came with their performance of the dance floor favorite “Stillness Is the Move”, with Coffman smoothly hitting notes reminiscent of early ’90s Mariah Carey.

Dirty Projectors’ Pabst performance this past Sunday was definitely one of the best live shows I’ve seen this year, featuring some of the finest instrumental and vocal performances I’ve seen to date. And while this was my first time seeing the group live, be assured that it will most definitely not be my last. Great job, Projectors.

Dirty Projectors’ Pabst performance was one of TCD’s “10 Must-See Fall Concerts”. To view the others, click here. You can follow Sahan on Twitter at @sahanicyouth.

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