St. Patrick’s Pilgrimage: An Evening With Destroyer

21 03 2011

This St. Patrick’s Day I forsook my customary afternoon tradition of green beer debauchery to pursue a musical odyssey.  Joined by a handful of fellow Victorian music lovers, backpack filled to the brim with bread, wine, and other necessities, I boarded bus, boat and train in search of Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom where the enigmatic Destroyer was scheduled to appear. 

Those of us who got to the Ballroom early enough were greeted by some familiar faces as Victoria’s own Blackout Beach took the stage.  Drawing almost exclusively from last year’s tragically overlooked Skin of Evil, Carey Mercer showcased his remarkable poetic gifts as he bellowed terrifying invocations to Donna, the album’s mysterious muse. 

 Mercer’s approach to vocal delivery is diametrically opposed to that of the evening’s headliner.  Whereas Destroyer’s most recent album has been praised for Dan Bejar’s vocal detachment, Mercer fully embodies the voice of his jealous, lovesick speaker.  Channeling this speaker, Mercer blushes while singing about Donna, and snarls at her boyfriend William (“I SHALL CRACK HIS NECK AND PERFORM ONE MILLION CASTRATIONS WITH HIS BONES”—The Whistle).

Those familiar with the album were undoubtedly surprised to hear how different the songs sound in a live skin.  Whereas the album is a swirling, atmospheric composite of layered sounds and distant voices, the live versions are more rhythmic: drummer Melanie Campbell and keyboardist Megan Boddy at once corral and propel Mercer’s frantic yawps and yips.  The set was more akin to a recent Orange Hall performance than the album itself, but equally as powerful: the band left the stage all too soon, after signing a t-shirt for a fan.

Next to take the stage was Philadelphia’s The War on Drugs.  While the band has received a lot of press recently, largely due to Kurt Vile’s solo efforts, their conventional Americana seemed kind of, well… boring sandwiched between the other bands.  The War on Drugs lacked the intensity of Blackout Beach and the expansiveness of Destroyer’s new sound, indulging an obvious mimicry of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty instead.  While the dance floor was packed, I chose to explore the rest of the Commodore, and can assure you that there is not a bad seat in the place. 

When Destroyer finally took the stage, it was immediately obvious that the newest incarnation of the band is completely different than anything they’ve done before.  The eight-piece ensemble stands in stark contrast the band’s early lo-fi work such as City of Daughters, but it is also much different than more recent albums such as Trouble In Dreams or Destroyer’s Rubies.  If Thursday night is any indication, this might be the best version of Destroyer yet.

The critical response to Destroyer’s newest album, though tremendously positive, is frustratingly reductionary.  A lot of genre-talk has been thrown around: phrases such as “soft rock” or “easy listening” being the most common, but such descriptions are inherently deceiving.  While the new record can be compared to a very specific moment in music (that being late seventies/early eighties sounds), there are several other components in the mix as well which are especially evident in a live setting: the new songs are not ‘soft’, nor are they ‘easy’.

As Destroyer went to work on an amazing set mostly composed of Kaputt material, it became increasingly obvious that ‘front man’ Dan Bejar is quite content to sit back to let his musicians take over (he often crouched down in front of the drum kit as if trying to hide).  And so they did with stunning results.  The interplay between trumpet and saxophone was particularly evocative.  While such arrangements might cause some to think of Jenifer Warnes, the digital delay pedals through which the horns are filtered also recall Miles Davis at his most experimental.

 I longed to hear This Night-era songs interpreted by the brass tongue of Destroyer’s current line-up, but the band only ventured out of Kaputt territory on a few occasions in order to play material from Yer Blues.  The fact that I wasn’t too disappointed is a testament to the strength of the band’s newest studio effort.

The evening’s highlight was undoubtedly an encore performance of the sprawling “Bay Of Pigs”.  Originally released in 2009 on an EP of the same name, the song has recently resurfaced in an attenuated form on Kaputt. “Bay of Pigs”, in its longer form especially, is Destroyer’s masterpiece.  Those of us fortunate enough to be in attendance on Thursday night grinned as the 13 minute epic came in to full bloom in front of our tired eyes.

And so, this St. Patrick ’s Day came as a welcome deviation from the norm.  Not only did we manage to avoid much of the faux-Irish madness that painted the rest of Granville’s strip green, we also bore witness to a band who is only predictable in its unpredictability.  It will be most interesting to see where Destroyer goes from here.

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