All images courtesy of Paivi Salonen
Bands using video projectors at their live shows can be hit-or-miss. At their best, you can have a band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who count their projectionist as a full-on band member. He moves back and forth between four(!) projectors, mixing up a series of dark images to add to the brooding feel of the music. At their worst, you might as well stare at the iTunes visualizer on your laptop.
As I arrived at Pinback’s show on Sunday night at the Black Cat, the first thing I noticed was the projector. I had mixed feelings about how openers Judgement Day used it; it seemed gimmicky to me at first, but I was convinced by one song, where their playing synced perfectly with their video track. It was sick, to say the least; it showcased their skills as virtuosic musicians with creativity beyond musical composition. Pinback, on the other hand, wasted an opportunity to do anything exciting with their visuals. They weren’t very dynamic as performers either, so their use of a projector felt like a crutch, just to try to make their show more visually appealing.
Judgement Day were a three-piece, consisting of drums, violin, and cello. Their music was far from classical, though – they played some intense math-rock, weaving in and out of strange time signatures. Their limbs flailed as they ripped through complex melodies and arpeggios. Honestly, they were so fun to watch that I felt like their projector was unnecessary for most of the set.
One song really stood out; when it happened, everyone in the crowd snapped to attention and focused on the band for the rest of the night. The track opened with an edit of this Youtube video, with a kid exclaiming “oh my god, it’s Violin Hero!!” as he opens a Christmas present. The video then turned into the familiar scrolling staves from Guitar Hero, ripping through an insanely fast track that would easily be a 5-star difficulty in the game. We in the audience stared at the video, thinking, “Is this really what they’re playing? How do they do that??” It was perfectly executed, making me realize how talented these guys must be to reconstruct their performance exactly in time with the video.
Pinback only had one memorable moment of projector use. During my favorite song of theirs, “Good to Sea,” they showed their music video for the song, and performed in sync with the video. It’s a fun, silly video, but it reduced their performance to video karaoke. The rest of their videos were just random collections of cool-looking, creepy, or funny scenes; nothing I would categorize as “meaningful”. For a handful of their songs, the projector just showed this “no stick figures” image, as if they couldn’t be bothered to, you know, go out and film clouds passing overhead.
In a way, the projector amplified how dull the band itself was to watch. They mostly gazed downwards, never moving too much. Frontman Rob Crow was the most interesting, but most of the time he was hamstrung by playing guitar and singing at the same time. On the few occasions when he put his guitar down, he was much more dynamic, crooning into the mic, or dancing crazily. He bantered with us about DC’s Ethiopian food, and mentioned upon hearing about Osama bin Laden’s death that he didn’t know how to feel about “blood vengeance”. I’m curious as to whether he’s a more free performer in his side projects.
“Circles & Squares” was one of my favorite tracks, as were “Tres” and “Penelope”. I can’t say the live performance was any better than hearing the songs on album, though – the songs I enjoyed that night were largely the songs I already knew. I do think they’re solid songwriters – they definitely have a knack for crafting pleasant, quirky indie-rock tracks. I really wanted their performance to take these songs to the next level, but it wasn’t happening for me.
The set had a lot of deeper cuts from their self-titled album and Blue Screen Life. Maybe too deep. The set actually went on for over two hours! Their encore lasted a half hour, but wasn’t memorable. For the last two tracks (“June” and “Grey Machine”), they brought out the string players from Judgement Day; this was a wasted opportunity, as their string parts had none of the dynamism or complexity of Judgment Day’s songs. It just sounded like Pinback songs, plus strings – nothing more. Only a third of the crowd stuck it out to the end. I sincerely enjoy Pinback on their albums, but I probably should have left after the main set to leave Rob Crow alone with his diehard fans.