If you’ve read a couple of these reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I go to almost exclusively free gigs. Well, no. Completely exclusively free gigs. It takes a freak accident or a ridiculously generous friend who can’t get out of work for that trend to be bucked. Owing to the latter, against $40 odds (that’s about 10 days of staying alive), I found myself on the ferry again to Governor’s Island.
There’ve been some incredible shows. Caribou on Governor’s will be one of those hazy, reverie-type memories for as long as my memory lasts. Sonic Youth was like a Greek statue, a perfect museum-piece of what a Sonic Youth gig in Brooklyn was going to be like in my head. HEALTH was loud. But this one was the best.
I got to the island slightly late, because it turns out time is linear rather than cyclical, as I had previously thought. As I queued at the “Will Call” stand, Gang Gang Dance put down what sounded like a pretty intense set for a first support. I made my way past the drinks wristband guy, confident in the knowledge that the $1.30 in my pocket wasn’t going to buy me anything worth having, and crossed the fake beach one more time to take up residence in front of Hamilton Leithauser and the Walkmen.
Bows + Arrows is the only Walkmen album I ever paid any attention to, and even though I liked it a lot at the time, it’s been scrolled past consistently for nearly five years now. Still, open mind. They’re a strange band to watch.
Since Bows + Arrows, they’ve slowed down and calmed down a little, but there’s still the feeling that Leithauser is an overstuffed straw doll, bursting at the seams and malfunctioning sadly a little even when the melodies are happy. You can take Hamilton Leithauser’s hands out of his tailored trouser pockets, but you can’t take the hands-in-pockets out of Hamilton Leithauser. They play okay, with a little bit too much of what seems like self-regard on the slower ones, and they criminally skip P4K’s 20th best track of the 2000s.
None of that, nearly 400 words in, is relevant to why this was the best gig of the summer and one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. That was what came next, after a rain shower, some crew panic, a feud between poncho-wearers and “Williamsburg pansy pricks” with umbrellas and a delay of at least a half an hour. Grizzly Bear.
It’s been long established that Grizzly Bear are an awe-inspiringly tight and excellent live band, but this was something else. They came out and opened with an almost unrecognisable version of Showcase from Horn of Plenty that sounded like what Radiohead probably wish In Rainbows sounded like live, spotless, skewed and gigantic. Then it was into Southern Point and no more surprises till the encore.
Scale changes the experience at shows, and even though it was wet, the twin key factors of volume and lights, not to mention the downtown Manhattan skyline, made it two gears beyond anything I’ve seen them do before. Knife and Two Weeks are the obvious hits, but they seemed like the least impressive things tonight, possibly because they’re made of nothing that has physical effect when pumped out of bus-sized speakers – Two Weeks has no guitar at all and a drum part too intricate to really break up, and Knife is strangely subdued. Crowd singalongs, though, might have made up for the slight dip in energy.
Grizzly Bear’s variation on the Loud-Quiet-Loud formula (Quiet-Quiet-Loud-Quiet-Loud-Loud maybe?) is exponentially more pronounced on stage when they’re actually playing off each other. It’s Chris Bear on drums and Daniel Rossen on guitar who take this to its extreme. The troughs (or oases of calm, would possibly be a better way of putting it) are cowing. Foreground is as fragile these things come. But the peaks are almost destructive. The set’s packed with songs that show this off: Lullabye, the Friend version of Little Brother, I Live With You and While You Wait For The Others all feature impeccably loud, rhythmically untrustworthy wig-out sections.
Without going further down the internal thesaurus route, it’s hard to describe exactly how good this was. I tried taking some notes on my phone, but they’re just garbled nonsense. It’s rare that an entire set, start to finish, is completely captivating, even when it’s a band whose entire catalogue you know well. It was just a perfect combination of set, untouchable talent, location and the fact that I hadn’t even expected to be there until the day.
The set closed with While You Wait For The Others into the second half of On A Neck On A Spit, and even though it was 12.5 songs long, it seemed almost like a cheat, like when a band shows up and plays a 25 minute set. The encore was, again, an unrecognisable Horn of Plenty song, Fix It. After that, it was just three minutes of staring at an empty stage and fighting both sides of an internal Socratic dialogue on whether it was the best live show I’d ever seen.
Showcase (Horn Of Plenty)
Southern Point (Veckatimest)
Lullabye (Yellow House)
Little Brother (Friend)
Fine For Now (Veckatimest)
Two Weeks (Veckatimest)
Ready, Able (Veckatimest)
I Live With You (Veckatimest)
While You Wait For The Others (Veckatimest)
On A Neck, On A Spit (Second Half) (Yellow House)
Encore: Fix It (Horn Of Plenty)