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concert review: Animal Collective Wins Some, Loses Others

Indie Band Brings Avalon Ballroom Audience From Doubt to Satisfaction

By Andrew Lee

Animal Collective

Avalon Ballroom

15 Lansdowne St.

Boston, MA

Feb. 21, 2006

Just as I passed through the turnstiles, the Avalon Ballroom suddenly became the last place I wanted to be after a typically dubious meal from Next Dining. The safest course was to cut my losses and shamefully walk across the river all the way back to campus — I didn’t want to be that guy who throws up in the bathroom at the club. Just as I was about to resign myself to the long trek home, I realized how much I had to stay. I needed to stick it to Ticketmaster.com.

One of the greatest parts about seeing an indie band like Animal Collective in concert is the obscenely low ticket prices. Ticketmaster likes to strangle that simple joy and drown it with processing fees, handling fees, and a standard overcharge until they’re satisfied you’ve paid about $10 more than necessary. This night would be my last show of the Ticketmaster era, and damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy my Animal Collective with the tickets for which I overpaid.

I’ve avoided the difficult task of trying to describe the actual band long enough, so how about this: if you were a contestant on Family Feud and “Animal Collective” flashed on the board, you’d be wise to have the word “experimental” in hand. Of course, it’s an all-too-easy label to pin on any band or artist that does something interesting but difficult to describe, but this band really is that eyebrow-raisingly eccentric. Consider that they’ve played live before wearing animal costumes in true Flaming Lips fashion. Thankfully, the band decided to hold off on the theatrics this time. Their appearance was so unassuming that the two guys tuning guitars — whom I’d thought were roadies — turned out to be bona fide band members. Fancy that.

The other half of Animal Collective came onstage separately a little later on, signifying the appropriateness of the term ‘collective.’ For their 2004 LP “Sung Tongs,” only vocalist Avey Tare and drummer Panda Bear happened to be present in the studio, with just their acoustic guitar and mangled tape effects for company. Their resourcefulness resulted in a collection of some of the most hypnotic and bizarre campfire tunes ever put to record. Animal Collective’s latest album, “Feels,” reunited the “Sung Tongs” duo with Deaken and the Geologist, and with their newly returned instrumental versatility, they delivered their most immersing and organic effort yet.

On this particular night, this had to be the most assuredly disorienting band playing on this side of Lansdowne Street, to say the least (you never know when and where Radiohead will land in their spaceship). In a slightly poetic twist, though, my previously bemoaned discomfort all but dissipated once Animal Collective began their concert in jarring fashion. Their set was led off by Deaken’s skidding, monotonic guitar grinding out a riff reminiscent of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up.” It was the first of two newly premiered songs that were extremely promising and apparently had yet to be named. To the benefit of the Avalon crowd, the band had not been schooled in the virtue of patience and jumped right into five more songs without rest.

Though playing continuously for half an hour sounds strenuous, these guys showed off some of their maturity by settling to a comfortable pace. Deaken took to lazily drifting around the small territory he’d carved out for himself, bouncing off its invisible walls like a lethargic bumper car. The Geologist, wearing a (crucial) miner’s flashlight on his forehead, steadily bobbed in place while manipulating a large effects console at center stage. Panda Bear sputtered and spazzed behind his drum kit but never faltered. Avey Tare, however, had no reservations about unleashing copious amounts of childlike energy. His vocal melodies were a place where primeval yells and barks could rub up against a folk-influenced falsetto and back again without failing. Burdened with his own guitar most of the time, Avey Tare lacked the physical mobility he deserved, but he did manage to find a drumstick at one point and launch repeated assaults on Panda Bear’s cymbals in truly simian fashion.

One of Animal Collective’s strengths is their previously mentioned resourcefulness: they can deliver the best with only what they have on hand. Their belief in their ability to do so may have bordered on overconfidence in this case. It was a shame to have to miss out on some of the most engaging acoustic material from “Sung Tongs” simply because of the band’s arbitrary decision to use only electric guitars. Only the song “We Tigers” made an appearance, and it was an unexpected highlight with its dance-around-the-bonfire stomp and skip-rope chanting; this also allowed the Geologist to pick up a mic and take his own stab at whooping and hollering.

Unfortunately, it became increasingly apparent that the Geologist’s live effects board was a poor substitute for the lush production from their album cuts. Studio renditions of “Feels” standouts “Grass” and “Banshee Beat” were also far superior, disappointingly, to what we heard in the Avalon. The evocative studio textures enhanced the tracks, and the band’s live restructuring couldn’t do them justice. Avey Tare unwisely chose to re-interpret the coda of “Banshee Beat” (one of the most peaceful ruminations on “Feels”) by adding pained cries, substituting contrived angst for simmering apprehension. The most head-scratching moment in the concert came later on, when no one could decide if the singer’s mic was awkwardly blinking in and out by accident or as a product of some ill-advised vocal experiment.

Even though Animal Collective is an experienced band, I can imagine that the first performances of a tour tend to be uneven. This was one of those up-and-down nights for Animal Collective, but for all the toying around they did throughout, they were level-headed enough to put their best foot forward at the end. Their three-song encore (all played continuously, of course) culminated in the “Feels” ode to giddy anxiety, “Purple Bottle.” The finale, with its memorable head-over-heels climax, provoked the audience to a state of near ecstasy. We filed out of the Ballroom with broad grins on our faces, and I don’t need to tell you how great it is to leave feeling so much better than when you came in.