Music Tapes performed at the Vera Project on Thursday, Feb. 20. Photo by Garrett Mukai.
Last night's show was, hands down, one of the most bizarre shows I've ever witnessed. Believe you me, I have seen a lot of weird shit go down on a stage...but nothing quite like this. Your Heart Breaks, Clyde Petersen's songwriting project, opened. While I was standing there being charmed by Clyde's stage banter (which I like at least as much as, if not more than, her songs themselves), I saw a distinguished-looking gentleman wearing a green blazer walk up behind me to listen to the music. Because I was probably the fourth-oldest person in the room-- the median age in that crowd was about 18-- I admit, I made an erroneous assumption. "Aww," I thought to myself, "someone's dad wouldn't let them come to a show alone."
Surprise! Turns out that guy was not someone's overprotective papa at all, but Brian Dewan, one of those artists who write jarring, abrasive songs with lyrics about as subtle as getting hit in the face with a tire iron. The dude practically abused the old autoharp he played, strumming it so hard I thought the thing might just give up and break, all whilst singing songs in a surprisingly pleasant voice. Except the songs were about the end of the universe. And putting your money where your mouth is. Literally. "Eat it!" he shouted. "Eat it!" I was flummoxed. Happily, he took breaks from the autoharp abuse to play the accordion, though the instrumentals seemed more of a cursory, deliberately obnoxious accompaniment to his weird-ass poetry than actual music. Then, when it was over, I overheard somebody meowing (yes. Like a cat). Then I saw Julian Koster walk by, carrying a plastic camel attached to the end of a stick, with a little hollowed-out bowl where its hump should've been. I laughed-- but then again, I have a tendency to quack like a duck when I'm irritated. Obviously, we weirdos were all in the right place.Nana Grizol, on the other hand, was the most "normal" (if you will) act of the evening. A big band with trumpet, baritone trumpet, clarinet, harmonica, a shitload of stringed instruments and two drummers. Though skeptical at first, I eventually decided that the band's bright, brassy pop songs and exuberant optimism were quite charming; meanwhile, the crowd bobbed along to the music like quail. Adorable.
Afterward, Brian Dewan returned and projected a series of illustrations that told a fable, which he narrated, about a cock and hen. I'll save you some time and just tell you that everyone dies at the end. There were some uncertain chuckles. Nobody seemed to know what to make of that dude. I still don't.
Then the Music Tapes came out; first, Julian Koster played a song by himself, but then some of the folks in Nana Grizol came out to support. It's easy to belittle the Music Tapes for their experimental, whimsical ways, but live, it's quite an enjoyable spectacle. I mean, Julian made a drum out of a giant soup pot and a drumstick out of a small electric blue dodgeball, bouncing the thing in time to the music. It doesn't get much better than that.
I tend to prefer Music Tapes songs that have more fully-fleshed out instrumentals; both Julian's voice and his banjo strumming have a tinny, twanky timbre that accompaniment can offset. Alone, those two things are almost too intense for me. It's the sort of music that feels more like a conceptual performance art installation than an actual pop band that someone might want to listen to on a road trip. In other words, this is not and will never be Neutral Milk Hotel. And yet, there's a genuine sweetness about Julian's songs.
The 7-Foot-Tall metronome only performed once-- "he has a broken arm," Julian explained-- but Static the singing television made a few appearances, as did Badger the saw, which is the same saw Julian Koster played on NPR. Julian came down to the floor so Badger could sing "The First Noel" for us, which was lovely, and really made me wish I lived in the Midwest for a second so I could've seen one of his recent saw-caroling shows in its entirety. We all sat down around him like kindergartners watching their teacher read them a storybook.
After performing "The FIrst Noel," Julian asked us all if we wanted to play a game. Like the enthusiastic kindergarten class we resembled, we said yes. The camel-on-a-stick reappeared to reveal its purpose; turns out his little hump-bowl held paper and pens. We were, Julian explained, to write down a memory without telling anyone what memory we chose. We then gave the little pieces of paper into the soup pot that had served as a drum earlier, and trouped outside so that we could set the little pieces of paper on fire after picking one at random to read aloud. We then lined up, single-file, to leap over the pot filled with flames. Like obedient kindergartners. Then, when only a few people remained, the last piece of paper not to catch alight was plucked carefully from the fire, then read aloud before the rest of the people made their little leap.
We then all received small bells-- there were actually not enough of them for all of us-- which were to later serve as noisemakers. The Music Tapes' last song was one about a memory, Julian explained, and when we heard something, a word, a note, anything that reminded us of the memory we'd chosen, we were to begin ringing and passing along our bells. As all this was happening, the baritone player wandered about the crowd, playing his instrument. And then the show ended. And we filed out like kids on their way to the school bus.
The whole way home, I tried to come up with some sort of powerful symbolic meaning that would justify what I'd just done, and failed. I thought about how it is that musicians can inspire crowds to do things that, in any other context, would be absolutely absurd. And yet, it's good to perform rituals, and good to perform them with one another, because even if it seems ridiculous to leap over a flaming pot of other peoples' memories, it's not as ridiculous when you're doing it with 50 other human beings. Maybe that's the point. There's no real rhyme or reason to why we do things. But when we do them together, it gives our existence-- and our actions-- meaning.