An unusually large lineup and an (almost) appropriately large crowd convened at Athens, Ga.’s 40 Watt on Saturday, Nov. 10. Formica Man and Athens natives Tunabunny delivered energetic sets, but it wasn’t really until über-bearded New Zealander Liam Finn took the stage that things started to fill in on the floor. An impressive showman, Finn managed to keep the audience engaged through every second of the floor-bound fiddling and fussing that comes with being a one-man band.
Maybe it was because the music itself actually delivered. Finn’s tunes were chord-y and emotive, at times harkening back to the mid-90s golden age of guitar alternarock. But even if each song appeared to fit a template at first, there was almost always a twist. In addition to his trusty looper, Finn deployed an armada of octave machines, flangers, dirt boxes and every other pedal you can think of, always to good effect. Instead of merely overdriving guitars to make them louder, he would find compatible timbres and blend them to create new flavors of resonance. You get the sense that some of this stuff could be achieved more easily by pressing a space bar. But Finn’s the kind of guy who’d rather work for it, even relying entirely on live percussion played by you-know-who. He displayed impressive chops on the kit, even managing to rearrange loops with a spare foot during the infinitesimal moments between kick drum hits. By the time he delivered a personalized tune about being an “Athens virgin,” Finn had won over just about everyone in the room.
Then, with gracious speed, Deerhoof filed onstage. There were cheers.
Listening to their records, it’s not hard to glean that this group rarely wants for ideas. But in a live setting, you also realize what a staggeringly talented collection of musicians they are. While there weren’t any warp-speed, Steve-Vai-sanctioned guitar solos going on, the members’ understanding of rhythm – and the many ways in which to turn it on its head – was borderline virtuosic, improbably calling to mind the technical prowess of nerdier bands like Battles and the Mars Volta. On innumerable occasions throughout the set, Deerhoof veered off into time signatures so odd and unexpected, it was like watching a troupe of trapeze artists pull off stunt after stunt. And all night they did it without a net: shaggy drummer Greg Saunier roughs it on a spare three-piece kit, confidently tossing off the chance to bury mistakes beneath a mound of blurry tom fills.
But don’t worry: Deerhoof aren’t going to write any hour-long prog operas anytime soon (I don’t think). Despite the pronounced “jankiness” of their rhythmic engine, the true unifying force behind their live show is a strong dedication to the ethos of straight-up rock. There is ample noise and energy, and all the combinations of loud-soft/fast-slow shakeups that render each full-band crash absolutely huge. They’ve nailed these devices, skillfully conjuring and combining them at will. And above all, the performance was expressive, a quality that seems to slip the minds of many equally nimble musicians. Throw in the robotic pixie dance moves of frontwoman/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, and you have a show that’s just weird enough to fascinate while precluding any accusations of gimmickry. Deerhoof may be an against-the-grain act, but they’re too focused a unit to fall back on faux-showmanship.