Last Thursday night Canadian indie-dance troupe Caribou made their second stop in DC in six months when they played to a nearly-full Black Cat. This time around they brought Ohio’s psychedelic/electro princes Emeralds along as openers. Combining Emeralds’ intense sonic textures and Caribou’s intricate dance music provided for an interesting evening of music that would have fit right in with last week’s Sonic Circuits Festival.
Emeralds are a trio from Cleveland Ohio composed of John Elliott and Steve Hauschildt on keyboards, analog synths, and sequencer and Mark McGuire on guitar. Their synth symphonies and drone compositions are some of the most inviting yet challenging music I’ve ever heard. With over 30 releases in roughly four years, these relative newcomers to the international noise/experimental scene have used album proliferation to perfect their live show. When I first saw Emeralds, it was several years ago, in Brooklyn, as the openers for Throbbing Gristle. Their set filled the cavernous Masonic Temple with a warm ambient sound. It was easy to let your mind wander as their gentle sound surrounded you. Their stage presence was pretty minimal as they focused on their instruments and barely acknowledged the audience. I remember enjoying their set, but walking away with no real impression to distinguish them from similar acts.
Emeralds’ set at the Black Cat felt and sounded entirely different than their Brooklyn show. It impressed me so much that I am now scrambling to acquire as many of their many albums as I can get my hands on. Maybe it was the change from the large Masonic Temple to a smaller venue like Black Cat that made Emeralds so much more memorable. Or perhaps as live performers the group has become tighter and better as they have evolved. Whatever is responsible for the difference, I was glad to see this young but prolific band put on such an awesome set. Their Black Cat performance featured a raw power and sense of propulsion that gave their two or three very long pieces a visceral appeal that their earlier ambient performance-style lacked. I really felt that I was watching the closest thing to genuine rock stars that the noise world has produced in a long time.
McGuire on guitar was sweating like mad and totally absorbed in his detailed noodling and pedal work. I am not sure who was on the massive, old school sequencer and who was on the analog synths and keyboard but both Hauschildt and Elliott were intensely working their instruments. Whoever was on sequencer was also dancing the whole time, which at first seemed a little out-of-place with their early-Tangerine Dream synth washes, but began to make more and more sense as Emeralds’ music eventually took a more dynamic direction. Their music never quite broke out of the repetitive synth/drone realm into complete dance music but it did have an oddly compelling body moving affect on people. Especially right up front, where the speakers were blaring their already juiced-up jams. When I saw them before Emeralds offered a pleasant synth ride, at the Black Cat on Thursday their set was like hanging by your fingernails from the siren and light rig atop a speeding police car. By set’s end people were hooting and hollering for more. Emeralds’ performance was exhilarating and almost upstaged the headliners.
Caribou is the brainchild of Dan Snaith; who performs most of the parts on his recordings himself while employing a touring band of musicians to realize his songs in concert. His nearly 10 year career as Manitoba and then Caribou has varied somewhat in style but is usually anchored in his bedroom or home-studio electronic glitchery. With his latest album, “Swim”, Snaith has shrugged off his bedroom blanket to deliver listeners a nearly perfect indie-dance album. Each song on “Swim” is a mini-masterpiece featuring an ingenious and intricate mix of live instrumentation and more traditional-to-dance-music electronics fronted by Snaith’s gentle almost Erlend Oye-esque voice. In my opinion “Swim” is light-years beyond his previous efforts and judging by the popular response his current tour is receiving many other people agree. Having sold out Rock & Roll Hotel in the Spring, Caribou nearly pulled a repeat at the much larger Black Cat main room. The crowd was an odd mix of music geeks and party people by the time Snaith and his three-man band took the stage.
Caribou the live band are a super tight unit of musicians, all of whom had their individual moments to impress; be it the drummer’s amazing electronic drum-pad work or the bass player taking over vocals on a few songs. Dan Snaith was of course the center of attention as he played keyboards, hand-held percussion devices, a full drum-kit, a guitar, and even a recorder. Snaith’s multi-instrumental prowess was never presented as showing off though; it was more of a tool-box approach in which Snaith used whichever tool a song required at a given moment. Although, when he busted out the recorder near the end of the set, people did go wild. Snaith’s vocals were particularly entertaining to me as his voice seemed kind of weak and yet felt oddly appropriate for his off-beat, emotional dance music. Snaith made for an interesting and humble front man and the crowd seemed to really respond to him. As good as Caribou the band were and as unique a front man as Snaith presented, I am left with mixed feelings about the show as a whole.
Whenever Caribou performed a song of of “Swim”, which thankfully was often, the band was on fire and the energy in the room was contagious. The positive energy and sounds of the band were fed right back to them by the crowd’s dancing and screaming along. The “Swim” tracks sounded phenomenal; otherworldly, yet still human; fitting dance music for a rave in an unsunk Atlantis. I loved every second of it. I feel very different about the rest of the set however. Whenever Snaith dipped into his back catalog, the momentum of the “Swim” party became bogged down and frankly boring. The crowd still gave their goodwill to the band during the songs from “Andorra” and others, but the vibe in the room felt all out of whack. As the first non-”Swim” tracks mixed in, I tried to stay on board, but by the second half of the set I was pretty bored. I don’t know if this boredom was because “Swim” is such a departure that it just doesn’t blend well with Snaith’s older material, or if it is because this show made me realize I may not particularly enjoy his older work as much as I had thought. I would put it down solely to my personal taste if not for having noticed how many other people tuned out during non-”Swim” songs as well. Maybe this is one time where I actually side with the mainstream more than my music geek brethren.
By the end of Caribou’s set, I was fairly annoyed by the growing scarcity of “Swim” brilliance but not enough to write the show off completely. There is no denying that Caribou the band are a fun unit to watch perform. Their multi-tasking alone is worth seeing in person at least once. Maybe as their mega-tour continues, they will continue tweaking their set list and strike on a perfect balance of new and old material. I bet if they had split the set up into more defined sections rather than trying to shuffle the material, I would have enjoyed this performance a lot more than I did.