Outside Lands, San Francisco: Every once in awhile, a band comes to town and completely rules the stage, leaving a wake of ecstatic fans behind. LCD Soundsystem is one such case, as they performed on Aug. 5, 2016 at San Francisco’s Outside Lands to an anxiously awaiting crowd, once again taking their place a the top of the electro-funk pantheon, delivering an explosive concert consisting of 14 perfectly chosen tracks.
Every song on the set list was played at their “farewell” concert five years ago at Madison Square Garden, chronicled in the exceptional 2011 film Shut Up and Play the Hits and the live album Live at Madison Square Garden. Many of us who came to know LCD Soundsystem 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 center stage, all manner of drums, percussion, electronic keyboards, and space for the bassist and drummer 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 number of musicians and the huge audience of over 60,000 at the festival. It was, from start to finish, one of the best concerts of the millennium thus far.
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, Chuck 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 James 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 aplomb.
The best of their songs start with a beat, sometimes laid down by a drum machine, but more often by precision-driven 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 and bass, guitar or treated electronics are added, until the drone or melody comes clear and captivating then Murphy adds vocals, working his rich baritone. Interlocking riffs are brought in 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 Garden show). 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 was directed by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace, and 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 is a band for you. Don’t be surprised if you’re singing “I Can Change” over and over again for days, such is its status as an electro-funk earworm! 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, James Murphy and his collaborators in LCD Soundsystem are back. Let’s hope they remain – on record, and in lights.
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