The concept of a band playing their material with a full orchestra has a long and not necessarily glorious history. When the band has songs that make the most of a full orchestra, it can work rather nicely. Think of Elbow’s show this year with the BBC Concert Orchestra, or Tindersticks playing at the Bloomsbury Theatre. But just bunging strings on top of basic meat and potatoes rock just doesn’t cut it, as many bands during the Britpop era discovered, to their (and our) cost.
Grizzly Bear are about as far from meat and potatoes rock as you can get. Now, as I’ve posted about them about 100 times this year, I don’t really need to go into describing their extraordinary music again. So, dear reader, on with the review without any more guff from me.
First things first. Isn’t the Barbican a freaky old place? It’s like a strange concrete oasis sat in the weird bit of London between The City and the West End. At first sight it looks like some nightmarish sink estate in Bradford or Loughborough, but then you sneak a look in an estate agents window and see that a one-bedroom flat goes for £500,000. Half a million! Sheesh. Then you notice the lack of litter and graffiti, and the nice little signs directing you along the raised walkways. Indeed, after a while you start to think it’s like running round a level of Quake 3 but without the monsters shooting at you.
And the actual Barbican centre itself is really quite nice. I like venues where you can have a sandwich, a slice of cake, and a nice sit down.
Sorry, enough with the guff.
So, what do Grizzly Bear sound like with the LSO? Well, let me put it this way. Every time I go to see a band, there’s a little, totally unscientific test I carry out. It’s pretty simple and there really isn’t a way I can easily replicate it. But it works and frankly I can’t think of anything better.
It’s this. At what point during the show does the hair on my arms stand up? Music is a visceral thing that affects people in all sorts of ways, on an emotional level that no other artform can match. I got it about thirty seconds into the opener “Easier”, which says a great deal about how beautiful those opening moments were. “Cheerleader” was simply stunning, a much softer proposition than at Koko, with Daniel Rossen’s guitar stabs toned down to suit the occasion. Hairs still raised, then.
Then came “Southern Point”, and the drawbacks of playing with an orchestra come to the fore. The complexity of the song, mixed with a presumable lack of rehersal time, made the song a bit too cluttered and ineffective. It doesn’t help that Daniel Rossen’s guitar has been moved further down the mix, removing the brutal dynamic of his playing.
Normal service was resumed during “Central and Remote”, with the orchestra again providing beautiful backing to one of the band’s more dynamic numbers. Better still, the jamjar lights surrounding the bands started circling, matching the rhythm of the song, to hypnotic effect. They made me think of fireflies lighting up a tropical night. The coda to “All We Ask” was astonishing, with a subtle backing to the band’s vocal harmonies.
But the highlight came with “Knife”, and on their best known song the band and their new friends pull out all the stops. Whether it’s because the song is so well known, or whether it just suits the orchestral treatment, “Knife” was an absolute triumph (dahling). From gently plucked strings echoing the staccato guitar line near the start, to a soft swell of violins building behind and above Chris Taylor’s beautifully treated vocals, the song was a glorious demonstration of everything that this band can do with an orchestra.
Both “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait For The Others” were played sans orchestra, presumably to give them a bit of a rest. They spent their time smoking cigarettes, playing poker, and scratching their names into their chairs. Oh ok, they sat back and enjoyed the songs (especially the conductor, who looked like he was having a whale of a time).
The set came to an end with the trio of “He Hit Me” (Ed Droste in wonderful form), “I Live With You” (really quite pleasantly noisy), ending with a wonderfully understated “Foreground”. A standing ovation ensued, with the band returning with a decent version of “Colorado”, which, as it isn’t exactly my favourite song, I was glad to enjoy more than I expected.
So, was it a success? By and large, yes. Some songs, like “Knife” worked so well they totally overshadowed the songs that didn’t, like “Dory”. And the song selection was a bit odd too; the aforementioned “Dory” isn’t one of their best songs in any way, shape or form, yet a song like “Marla”, which would have worked beautifully with a full orchestra, was bafflingly left off the set list. But as the band themselves said, this opportunity doesn’t come along very often, and I’m so very glad that the hairs on my arms stood up. You can’t hide an emotional response like that, and you can’t hide from the fact that Grizzly Bear are one of the finest bands this decade – with violin-toting buddies or without.
On another note, isn’t the Twilight New Moon soundtrack looking interesting?
Note: live photos courtesy of various posters at Songkick.