Every once in awhile a band comes to town and completely conquers the stage, leaving a wake of ecstatic fans behind. LCD Soundsystem is one such case, as they performed at San Francisco’s Outside Lands, August 5th, 2016 to an anxiously awaiting crowd, once again taking their place at the top of the electro-funk pantheon, delivering an explosive dance party via 14 perfectly chosen tracks. Every song on the set list was played at their “farewell” concert five years ago at Madison Square Gardens, chronicled in the exceptional film Shut Up and Play the Hits (2011) and audio album Live at Madison Square Gardens. Many of us who came to know LCD after the “farewell” tour have cherished that film and live release as it perfectly captured how astoundingly great this band’s live shows had been. Fortunately they hewed closely to that winning formula last weekend at Golden Gate Park.
For this show, the stage was just a bit tighter than before, the band squeezed into a small space in the center, all manner of drums, percussion, electronic keyboards, and room for half dozen crack musicians with lead man, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist James Murphy up front, and able to wander the small passages between. Crammed in with all that gear, the presentation seemed somehow intimate, despite the huge audience of over 60,000 at the festival. It was from start to finish, one of the best concerts of the millennia to date.
LCD Soundsystem, as described by writer and musician Nick Sylvester is “the sound of a man digging himself out of his own skull… an extremely smart and sensitive man wrestling his inner Klosterman” (by the way, Klosterman is a quirky American author and essayist who writes thoughtfully about American popular culture). This gets at the heart of why these confessional, observational songs speak to so many, songs like “Losing My Edge,” sporting these lyrics:
I’m losing my edge
I was there.
I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids.
I played it at CBGB’s.
Everybody thought I was crazy
On the studio albums, nearly everything you hear is played by Murphy – in concert he has a troupe of musicians, changing at times based on availability. It’s amazing really, because as the music is presented, it’s incredibly tight, each musician playing his or her part with precision, in unity. The best of their songs start with a beat, sometimes laid down by a drum machine, but more often by steady drummer Pat Mahoney, sometimes by a keyboard sequence triggered or played by Nancy Whang or Gavin Russom. As the song progresses, additional contrapuntal lines are drawn, the beat is intensified, bass, guitar or treated electronics are added, until the drone or melody comes clear and captivating, and Murphy adds vocals, working his rich baritone and quavering top-end. Interlocking riffs are added or taken away to change the dynamics, which ultimately build into ecstatic abandon. This is the main recipe for the band, and it’s done wonders for space rock, afro funk, new wave and alt/indie bands past and present. The most frequent touch point I could think of was the Talking Heads, Remain in Light era work with Brian Eno – or more recently the kind of dynamics mastered by Arcade Fire (who opened for them at that last Madison Square Gardens show, and for whom Murphy co-produced the album Reflektor). Murphy stirs it all up and makes something new and unique. It’s beautiful frenetic dance music that’s utterly irresistible.
The aforementioned film, Shut Up and Play the Hits (2011) directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, is as spectacular a concert movie as any in my collection. The entire three-and-a-half show is captured, along with interviews and a portrait of James Murphy as he prepares for the event, intended to be their last. The shoot is clearly professional, multiple camera angles fixed and handheld, both close-up and long/wide provide viewers with a bird’s eye perspective, illuminating how the large band works together to create the whole. The show kicks off with three of their best songs “Dance Yrself Clean,” “Drunk Girls,” and “I Can Change.” At the end of those tracks, at 20 minutes into the film, you’ll know if this music is for you – don’t be surprised if you’re singing “I Can Change” over and over again for days, such is it’s status as an alluring ear-worm! At the end of the film, as Murphy croons the slow burner “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” staring and smiling wistfully at the sell-out crowd while the balloons fall from the rafters, it’s impossible not to feel a bit sentimental, a bit of loss for their disbandment. Fortunately for the music world, Murphy and his collaborators are back. Let’s hope they remain, on record, and in lights.
Video: All My Friends (from Madison Square Gardens)
LCD Soundsystem (live band)
James Murphy – vocals, percussion, synthesizer, organ, keyboards, piano, kalimba
Tyler Pope – bass, samples, synthesizer, percussion, organ
Pat Mahoney – drums, synth pads, vocals
Nancy Whang – synthesizer, vocals, piano, organ, samples, Wurlitzer
Gavin Russom – synthesizer, percussion, piano, Wurlitzer, clavinet, vocals, vocoder
Matthew Thornley – guitar, percussion, percussion [electronic percussion], bass, synthesizer, electric piano, samples
Al Doyle – guitar, vocals, percussion, synthesizer, bass, clavinet, trumpet, organ, glockenspiel