When @CivicNola announced Deerhunter would play #NOLA on the very same night my future in-laws planned on arriving, I had no real choice. The plane landed at 10:10p, this set started at 9:15p. With a wedding on the horizon, no review assignment, and a weekend ahead of family duties, most would skip. But then again, most shows don’t feature Bradford Cox. A modern siren for any music lover with a pulse cannot be denied.
Despite everyone from Grantland to SPIN anointing Deerhunter as the best band in America in recent years, the Civic crowd felt refreshingly navigable. You could easily get within a crummy phone camera of B. Cox and his bandmates (now touring as a sextet with a keys/electronic voicings players and an auxiliary percussionist). And for roughly an hour-and-a-half 12-song set, the band made everyone—today’s college hipsters or die hard soloists like me—forget about whatever took place outside the auditorium.
Immediately, you could see Cox has changed since the band’s early days. He seems more comfortable as a lead, as a rockstar. The plain flannel of the late aughts gave way to a white suit ala Byrne or Bowie, but it came with a particularly Cox-twist (a bucket hat, the Southern staple). His in-between song banter feels both more confident and loose. He happily shouted out a couple he recognized from the band’s last three performances (the pair claimed 22 shows in total). Before “Breaker,” he started and stopped himself during a bit that introduced a song as old and not always played… only to unveil that for the next tune on the set list (“Dream Captain”). 2009-Bradford Cox wouldn’t interact with his younger self and halt a concert for 20-minutes, 2016-Cox clearly has and now embraces such impulses.
The newer material also gives Cox more room to flourish musically. Before it felt like the singer needed his guitar to fully find some on-stage swagger, but now he comfortably showcases emotion and vocal range when alone behind the mic. Soaring choruses like “Breaker” and “Helicopter” (or even “Dream Captain”) rely on Cox’s ability to elevate above whatever sonic rumble the rest of the band crafted, and the attitude exhibited in songs like “T.H.M” or “Snakeskin” simply didn’t exist three albums ago.
While Cox’s evolution may have helped elevate Deerhunter from good to great, the band’s core remains its incredible synchronization. No other act today can drive a soundscape right up to the edge of chaos while retaining supreme control. It’s baked right into the music—instrumental passages like the last three minutes of “Desire Lines” and the last two-and-a-half of “Snakeskin”—but in a live setting they take it further. These sections grow, the tempos push, and new wrinkles or extended solos surface. With the added band mates, a song like “Snakeskin” gets the fuzzy electronics, bongos, and a little sax during its lengthened conclusion. (A roadie/tech even came on to add occasional bell tree and ratchet.) And the drone outro of “Desire Lines” might represent modern concert heaven, band and audience each reveling in some sonic ideal.
Somehow, all of that happened *pre*-encore. When it came to elevate the evening further, Deerhunter reached back and became the band that seeded devotees back in the mid-aughts. Cox led out the original quartet, and Deerhunter proceeded to play only from the album that arguably put them on the map—Microcastle. After a dreamy version of “Agoraphobia” had the place in a relaxed ecstasy, the familiar reverb and drum intro of “Nothing Ever Happens” sent things into a frenzy. The 1,000-ish person theater quaked. Floors bulged to the point of balance-loss as the crowd bounced in unison. All this only crescendoed as Deerhunter reached the song’s drone conclusion, and soon Cox and co. unraveled a near 20-minute version of their first hit. Things got loud, things got tantric. Suddenly, seeing Deerhunter felt quasi-religious all over again.
Again. I first saw this band at ATP NY 2009. One year out of college, I still wanted to pursue music writing or industry, and finding the next meaningful show stood as *the* top priority. That set changed—hell, created—my future fandom. At the time, Deerhunter collectively gave off a subtle intensity no one could resist. The ambient nature of those early albums only swelled live; immaculate musicianship created long, almost hypnotic stretches of song that caused everyone to pay attention and bob. I never experienced anything quite the same since despite totally enjoyable nights with Atlas Sound or Lotus Plaza. Luckily, this latest performance only confirmed it. When you have an opportunity for a pilgrimage, put everything else on hold—even your in-laws.
This review first appeared on my Instagram.