by Greg Akers
The venue was close to capacity, made up predominantly of fans with a 1 in front of their age and those for whom that wasn't so long ago the case. (At age 37, I found myself in the 97th percentile — or, as I was corrected by Twitter friend @meghanshelby, "If you're over 19 you're in the 99.9th percentile."
The show was terrific in many ways, though much of it can be condensed to: MGMT played about as broadly embraceable a set as they could based on the wide range of types of fans in attendance.
You wanted to hear their big hits, like "Kids," "Time To Pretend," and "Electric Feel?" Score.
You wanted to hear the trippy stuff like "Siberian Breaks" and "Of Moons, Birds & Monsters?" Score.
You wanted to hear material from the new album? Score.
MGMT's set list broke down cleanly, with 6 cuts from Oracular Spectacular, 5 from Congratulations, and 5 from the newest album, MGMT.
You could use those numbers as a guideline and come up with many permutations of set lists, but MGMT elected to play their most accessible material. So they didn't play "4th Dimensional Transition" but they did play "Weekend Wars"; they didn't play "Lady Dada's Nightmare" but did "Flash Delirium"; didn't play the 2nd half of MGMT but did the first half.
The band's musicianship was fully on display, if you chose to look for it. I don't know that you call MGMT a rock band, and you certainly don't in the traditional sense. As such, a guitar's place is secondary to the hooks, noises, and environmental such and sundry produced by Ben Goldwasser. With an ear toward disassembling the construction to pick out the pieces, you can hear it all there, emanating from the stage. And the lyrics and vocals, though not always as conspicuous, are uniformly excellent. (A line like "I hope I die before I get sold" is pretty easily buried among a dozens of others in a song like "Siberian Breaks," but it's no less terrific.)
Saturday, November 23rd
The Orpheum Theatre, Memphis, TN
Time To Pretend
Song for Dan Treacy
Of Moons, Birds & Monsters
I Found a Whistle
Cool Song No. 2
Your Life Is a Lie
The architect of MGMT's visual performance is Alejandro Crawford. The Orpheum show extensively featured imagery from Optimizer, MGMT's companion video piece to their newest album, which was made by Crawford and a few other contributors.
Crawford uses Xbox360 Kinects to capture movement, and then runs the information through software he has written (references below). He also uses a remote control quadrocopter, which could be seen droning unmanned above the band during the show. (Upon seeing it, my wife said, "That's STEM, baby.") I'm sure there's other technological stuff happening to that I don't have the vocab for.
"Alien Days" was backed by a video of the travails of an alien shrimp guy with eyes on his nipples, natch.
For many of the songs, a camera captures the band and projects their image, shot through with color-bar ambience, to the audience. The concept's ne plus ultra was reached during MGMT's cover of Faine Jade's "Introspection." It's a great obscure song for MGMT to record, with a simple, direct lyrical approach to material that gets covered a lot in music. The chorus, "Introspection: What am I really like inside?" punctuates navel-gazing lines like "Colors, thoughts, emotions/Are trapped within the heart." The notion of self-examination is punched up in the live show as VanWyngarden uses a camera to record closeups of himself and bandmates as they perform the song — with saturated color layered into the mix. It's a clever bit of meta-commentary, as if we are to believe that what the camera shows of these music celebrities is the same thing as who they really are (and as if asking "Who am I" is the same as giving an answer.)
"I Found a Whistle" features a spinning day-glo rose, turning the song into a kind of romantic ballad. At the least, that's what the couple in front of me thought as they slow-danced.
Two songs that really stood out to me at the show were "Of Moons, Birds & Monsters" and "Mystery Disease." I guess I've heard the former, from the band's first album, several times, but never before have I been as impressed by VanWyngarden's rock-god guitar chops. I always find it interesting when great traditional-rock-instrument musicians turn their attention to less normal tools of their trade, like synthesizers and pedals and what have you. (See also: Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood). VanWyngarden can wail when he wants. "Mystery Disease" was probably my favorite live version of a song from the new album, a percussive, propulsive delight.
"Siberian Breaks" was arguably the highlight of the show, though I'm weird like that. I'm on record saying, "It's the best of all MGMT songs, and if you don't agree I'll fight you." Well, I would've had a lot of fights to get into at the show. (More on that shortly.) "Siberian Breaks" is not for the faint of heart, and I'm not sure how it played in the Peoria of the Orpheum's non-die-hard fanbase. The head-scratcher of a song has multiple false endings, and the uninitiated clapped dutifully a few times when they thought it was over. "Hahahaha!" I laughed derisively at the clappers, "this song has got 9 minutes and 7 iterations to go!" (Please note extreme self-deprecation.) "Siberian Breaks" is a marvel, though, and quite rewarding. It was a near-note-for-note recounting of the album version, though I don't mean that in a bad way. Pretty amazing stuff.
When "Electric Feel" kicked in after "Siberian Breaks," it was the perfect palate cleanser. Plus: The heavy bass in "Electric Feel" knocked the amps out on my end of stage. (I'm sure that makes technical purists cringe at the notion, but I thought it was cool.)
Up next was "Cool Song No. 2" from the new album. Introducing the song at The Orpheum, VanWyngarden said it was the first time the band had played it live. One dude shot a video of it from Saturday night. The bass on the song kind of overwhelms the video, but you can still get the idea.
Even better is the official video of the song, which stars Michael K. Williams metaphorically reprising his role as Omar from The Wire.
"Kids" closed out the first set. The response was overwhelming. As soon as that catchy keyboard hook hit, the crowd screamed in girlish delight. (All screams at that pitch are girlish, even from men, myself included.) For The Orpheum at least, "Kids" was regarded as MGMT's favorite song.
When I interviewed VanWyngarden for a Memphis magazine profile, he said, "In college, MGMT was much more ironic, a sarcastic take on mainstream pop music in a way. And that’s when we wrote 'Kids,' our most popular song. After touring and playing that song over and over and doing it karaoke-style, we wanted to make an album [Congratulations] that was music that we really felt good about that wasn’t overly serious but wasn’t joke music. I don’t think 'Kids' is a joke song, but I think it does have that air of sarcasm about it."
The Huffington Post Canada did a story on MGMT and why for a while they didn't want to play "Kids," and why they've decided to play it again during this tour. Ben Goldwasser is quoted in the story, "It's not necessarily because we don't want to play ['Kids'], it's more just we don't want to play a song live if we can't make it sound good and fit with the rest of the music."
Hearing it live again, I noted how VanWyngarden took the mic off the stand and walked around with it to sing, which reminded me of karaoke. Maybe he's owning his own critique of the song? And also, during what is the album version's brief quiet spell before the denouement, MGMT made a jumping off point for some lovely, intense, elongated jamming that gives the song some long-lost spontaneity.
When the song ended, the fans' appreciation was enormously vocal. I know the Beatles and others of their ilk have gotten the same treatment, but few have had it louder than MGMT did for "Kids" Saturday night. It was the perfect time for MGMT to leave the stage hot and the crowd poised for an encore.
The glee over "Kids" was, I think, a pretty great set-up for the thematic knock-down of "Your Life Is a Lie," which the band played when they took the stage again. Conjoining the two songs was probably by favorite moment of the show. "Your Life Is a Lie" features VanWyngarden's wit and wisdom at its most trenchant, outside of "Flash Delirium." Especially on the heels of "Kids," "Your Life Is a Lie" felt like healthy nourishment after too much candy. The song begins with the downer, "Here's the deal/Open your eyes/Your life is a lie/Don't say a word/I'll tell you why/You're living a lie" and gets more acidic from there.
To counterpoint the message, "Your Life Is a Lie" features the most absurd of instruments, the cowbell. To play it, MGMT brought on stage local music-scene stalwart Steve Selvidge, who Memphian VanWyngarden got to know when his high school/briefly college band Accidental Mersh played shows with Selvidge's Big Ass Truck more than a decade ago. (Selvidge is now a guitarist for the Hold Steady, so that's cool.)
MGMT closed the show out with the exceedingly lovely "Congratulations," a great capstone to a set that featured dense musicality and catchy riffs undercut by sardonic self-effacement.
Additional, Superfluous Commentary (Read at your own risk)
A few more thoughts brought to mind by the concert and some reactions to it I've read.
I think Memphis has earned a reputation as being a relatively poor audience at concerts. I don't know when this started or even if it's an idea that exists outside of my own head. I first became aware of the notion during the Smashing Pumpkins concert at the Pyramid in 1996, when Billy Corgan yelled at everybody for not selling out the arena and not really being into the show, either. For the record, I was loving the concert, but I knew what he meant because there were a lot of people around me who weren't nearly as engaged. However, I didn't really appreciate Corgan griping about me. I didn't know the phrase at the time, but "STFU" depicted my attitude about his comments. And is it the audience's fault they're not engaged or the band's?
This idea was furthered during a Wilco show at Memphis In May in 2003. The crowd was annoyed by the band's set and mere existence and eager for whoever was playing after them — some pop-rock act with some big hits, though I can't recall who. Someone yelled, "Go back to Seattle!" at Wilco, a band from Chicago. Lead singer Jeff Tweedy said something like, "Um, we like Seattle, but..."
It was embarrassing as a Memphian. The other takeaway I had from that show was that my friend and I almost got in a fight with some bros in front of us. We were there for Wilco, the dudes in front of us (and their girlfriends) were not. They were obnoxious and kept backing into us intentionally to be annoying. It almost got ugly, but didn't.
I was reminded of all this during MGMT's show. My wife and I were surrounded by a crew of people in their 20s or so who all knew each other and were clearly not into the show like we were. This was manifested by lots of loud talking (not paying attention to the concert) and, worse, these drunk people near us who kept drawing attention to themselves by dancing ironically (kind of like having a laugh at some of the songs) and leaving the rows for the aisles on purpose to get in trouble with the security staff, who kept warning them to stop, and distracting me and a few others around me who just wanted to pay attention to the show.
The worst was this giant drunk dude immediately in front of me who kept flexing his arms and turning in a 360-degree circle to get attention and show off for his friends, and kept almost hitting me in the face as he swiveled. I came as close to losing my temper as I have since the Wilco show. The guy would've beaten my brains in, because he was much bigger than me, but for awhile I thought it might be worth it to try. (Note: I've never gotten in a fight in my life. Never. I think I would probably lose.)
I looked around at the rest of the crowd and didn't see any other overtly problematic people, but it made me wonder if most every little pocket of crowd had some annoying behaviors happening. How many others were like me, mad at their neighbors who weren't at the show for the same reasons, who didn't like the same songs, who weren't enjoying or respecting the concert to the same degree? And is this a problem in Memphis or everywhere? What about during "Siberian Breaks," when even some people in the front row (ostensible uber-fans) weren't as engaged in the song as I was? Was this just Memphis being a bad town for concert crowds?
That's when it finally hit me how ridiculous I was being. How can I judge that others aren't watching a concert the way I am? I still think it's impolite to talk loud to the extent that it diminishes what others can hear. But if someone wants to pay to go to a concert and then talk with their friend, are they doing it wrong? If some frat guys (I'm being uncharitable) want to make jokes to each other by how they dance and make jack-off gestures, are they doing it wrong?
The answer, I've decided, is no. They might not be my future BFFs, but it's not my place to say I've got it figured out and they don't. Contextualize that to the Huffington Post piece, and I think MGMT might have had it wrong to not want to play "Kids" because it's the only thing some people want to hear. I'm glad MGMT is playing "Kids," if that was the only reason to stop playing it. If they decide they hate the song and don't want to play it, I can live with that. But it shouldn't be predicated on people attending their concerts properly. (See also Arcade Fire's suggested dress code for concerts.) I bet of 3,000 people (or however many) at the show, there were about 3,000 reasons for wanting to be there.
Flip this argument one more time, though, and I think it strikes more directly at the heart of the pop-sociology of Memphis music audiences that I've constructed here in this long-winded straw man argument. Just as a band shouldn't impose a behavior litmus test to an audience, so also is it not fair for the crowd to impose one on the band itself. We're spoiled with a large population of terrific musicians and performers. If MGMT doesn't strike your fancy, with their relaxed stage presence and heavily synthesized music, maybe they're not for you. It's not that they're not doing it right. They're just not doing it like you would. Extrapolate to whatever band playing whatever style. Maybe they're not your cup of tea. Maybe there's a show across town or one tomorrow night more to your liking.
Different strokes, as they say, but not a matter of right and wrong. Memphis sometimes needs to check the provincialism and self-satisfaction at the front door. I'll start trying to do so myself.
By Greg Akers
Additional MGMT Reading:
Memphis magazine December 2011 Cover Story, "The Future is Now"
The Music of Andrew VanWyngarden, Part One
The Music of Andrew VanWyngarden, Part Two
Memphis Flyer Q&A with Andrew VanWyngarden