I saw the current Projectors lineup perform a similar (albeit abbreviated) set only a month ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival. They were impressive from afar on a festival stage, but utterly stunning in the confines of the sold-out Paradise this weekend. Crowds at festival stages are an inevitable mix of diehards and curious onlookers or bored fans of the next band up. Club shows of exclusively the former bring out the best in bands like the Dirty Projectors, who seemed enlivened by a room of exceedingly energetic and engaged fans. Their head-spinningly complex and joyously executed set would go down as one of the best I saw this summer.
Providence-based Callers (who will be returning to Boston on September 19th with Wye Oak) opened the evening with a less-is-more approach to a rock band lineup. They built up minimalist grooves with rhythms that made unexpected turns, starts and stops, giving their songs an intriguingly unpredictable quality. As many as three guitars were in use at once, but their quietly melodic interplay was sharp and subtle. Sara Lucas’ heartfelt vocals tied the package together. Callers were a perfectly restrained but similarly-minded complement to the brainy but soulful sound of the night’s headliners.
Dirty Projectors fall into that perfect medium between astounding technical prowess and emotive resonance. They are a group of impossibly talented musicians, but the complexity of their vocal and instrumental arrangements never threatens to overwhelm the strong songwriting at the core of their music. This year’s Swing Lo Magellan was promoted as “an album of songs, an album of songwriting,” and that’s precisely what it is. Perhaps more so than on any Projectors album of years past, Magellan sees the band crafting tightly focused songs and thoughtfully engaging lyrics. The infectious, guitar-heavy grooves of Bitte Orca keep it as my top Dirty Projectors album, but Magellan has grown on me in ways I didn’t expect, and it’s a more than worthy follow-up. Predictably, Sunday night’s setlist was forward thinking: not a single song older than 2009. Fans of frontman/primary songwriter Dave Longstreth’s early work under the Dirty Projectors moniker may have left disappointed, but the song selection was perfect for those of the persuasion that the band truly hit their stride with Bitte Orca.
They opened with the new album’s title track, one of its sparser numbers, leading into the stunning “Offspring Are Blank.” Its hummed intro and playfully subdued verses gave way to explosively emphatic choruses, brilliantly illuminated by the band’s own stage-side lighting rigs. Eleven of Magellan’s twelve tracks were played, and each one translated flawlessly. From the minimalist earworm groove of “Gun Has No Trigger” to the woozy and vaguely sinister “Maybe That Was It,” the album’s strengths were further evident in the living, breathing environment of a live show. Highlights from Bitte Orca have lost none of their punch either. “Cannibal Resource” was the night’s first full-fledged singalong, and the highly danceable, Amber Coffman-sung “Stillness Is the Move” was received rapturously during the encore. “Useful Chamber” also continues to be a mindblowing set centerpiece, altered slightly from its original version to accommodate a slower tempo and brilliantly manipulated buildup to what may be music’s greatest two-word chorus.
This was my third Dirty Projectors performance, but the band’s technical mastery of their exceptionally complicated music never ceases to amaze me. Longstreth and Coffman trade knotty and intricate guitar riffs with marked fluidity, and the rhythm section of Michael Johnson (drums) and Nat Baldwin (bass) hold down the off-kilter song structures and rhythmic shifts with ease. Longstreth’s bright, elastic vocals take the lead on most songs, but the harmonizing and background chorusing of Coffman, Haley Dekle and Olga Bell steal the show more often than not. The trio possess stunningly angelic and powerful voices, and use them in pleasantly surprising ways. Their wordless close harmonies on “Offspring Are Blank,” “Useful Chamber” and “Gun Has No Trigger” brought a unique beauty and character to those songs, and the ping-ponging alternating vocals on “Beautiful Mother” (from the Mount Wittenberg Orca EP) were nothing short of jaw-dropping.
This being the final night of the Projectors’ US tour, it had the hallmarks of a victory lap. The band was on fire and in high spirits, encouraging singalongs and clapalongs, joking with the crowd, high-fiving the front row and generally having just as much fun as the audience. Touring can run a band ragged, but for my money this was an even tighter and stronger performance than Pitchfork last month. It’s the mark of a truly great band when you can watch them play the same songs twice in such a short span of time and still be totally blown away the second time.