Friday, 21 February 2014 (Fox Theatre, Boulder CO)
More photos on my Flickr.
Having a favorite band is often like walking a tightrope. You want them to stay comfortably the same, but not stagnant. You want them to offer up surprises without reinventing themselves into something unrecognizable. The bands often feel that pressure from the fans and it shows in their performance, either by going through the motions with a predictable set or in their frustration as they confront the audience with their "new sound".
El Ten Eleven seems oblivious to the challenge. Over the years, their music has evolved, but they've maintained a creative edge without complacency or belligerence. Having seen the band several times and reviewing their albums and show, it's a challenge to talk about their performance without plagiarizing myself: the duo continues to amaze with a savant blend of technical ability, enthusiastic stage presence, and moving music.
Regardless of whether you think of El Ten Eleven as math-rock, post-rock, or its own intense flavor of instrumental music, it's hard to see a synergetic connection between their set and an electro-dance opening act. Austin's Bronze Whale offered little to help draw that connection. The two DJs were mostly absorbed by their MacBook and the collection of mixers and other toys they brought along. If the pair had sonically played off one another or created any sense of interaction, it would have registered as more of a performance. Instead, their heavily layered tracks sounded like most of the work had happened long before this evening and their role was to hang back and admire what they had already done.
The remix grooves themselves weren't bad, especially if you like electronic dance music, but their only effort to connect with the audience was to step back occasionally and move to the beat. The crowd responded autonomically to the rhythm with nods and swaying, but a fair number of the people who danced were carefully ironic. Late in these set, one of the DJs finally spoke and greeted the audience, but still offered little of his own personality.
As I mentioned, everything I've written about an El Ten Eleven show could be copied verbatim here and it would capture the essence of the band's performance. Even though two years has passed, all of the high points remain the same: Kristian Dunn's enthusiastically physical stage presence, the layered complexity of the music, Dunn's dexterous manipulation of guitar, bass, effects, and loops, and Tim Fogarty's intuitive drum work. That continuity, while impressive, is only the surface. The band has continued to evolve and refine their show. They've tweaked arrangements and added some new tunes -- "Nove Scotia" from their recent EP For emily was in the setlist -- and they've improved their stage lighting.
Lighting is often taken for granted; it's ignored when things go well and only noticed when there's a problem. In this case, though, the musical mood changes were accentuated by the combination of on-stage lighting trees and overhead spots along with a delicate hand at transitions.
This performance also emphasized the real-time, live nature of El Ten Eleven's stage show. The songs can be quite complex with simultaneous bass and guitar as well as on-the-fly knob twisting on the effects. While the studio versions are all polished, it can be very challenging for the band to pull it all together. Plenty of improvisational players are adept at rising to the occasion and transforming "mistakes" into magic, often without the audience knowing. El Ten Eleven shares that skill, but they don't mind letting us in on the secrets. At one point, as Dunn was adjusting the end points for a short loop of percussive bass growl, he twisted it into a jerky beat (Fogarty followed along on the drums). Dunn toyed with it for a moment, then smiled out to the crowd, "This is an accident, but I like it."
The setlist bounced around the band's catalog: aside from "Nova Scotia" and opening song "Transitions" from their last album, they also played early tunes like "Fanshawe". Their cover of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" was particularly fun, sounding tighter and richer than the version they released on 2008's These Promises Are Being Videotaped. Dunn was every bit as dynamic as the musical selections. His boyish exuberance and flamboyant expressiveness contrasted nicely with Fogarty's tight focus.
After explaining the open secret of rock band "fake" encores, Dunn warned us that there were only two songs left. After finishing "My Only Swerving", they prepared to leave the stage, but couldn't resist giving us one last song. Despite some teasing from the audience the band closed with their standard finale, with Fogarty coming out from his kit to play Dunn's bass strings with his drumsticks while Dunn tossed in some guitar arpeggios. Every time I see this I smile.
More photos on my Flickr.