Animal Collective Thrives on the Unexpected

I think I’ve nailed down the difference between interview coverage and live coverage. 

As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time conducting interviews with dozens of artists, I fully stand behind doing your research as a means to avoid going in blind. It’s respectful, it’s professional. Someone like Larry King could get away by stripping all expectations, sure, but someone like me worries too much about running the risk of sounding like an ignorant fool. However, if there’s one thing I’ve taken to heart from Larry King-esque practices, it’s allowing myself to come less prepared for live gigs. Hear me out on this one.

Recently, I was lucky enough to catch Animal Collective’s tour stop at The Vic Theater here in Chicago. Entering the theater, I couldn’t say I knew what was exactly about to go down. I had never seen this band live before (nor their opener, L’Rain), and I entered the venue armed with only the basics. But I felt good about it. A band with as much longevity as Animal Collective was sure to be doing something right to continue to sell out venues 20 years into their career. With their music having been labeled as experimental pop, psychedelia, freak folk, and every other fun sounding adjective out there, I was stoked to hear something I likely had never experienced live before. 

And that’s really the point I’m trying to get at there––the live show prioritizes experience over everything. Whereas an interview could require contextualization as a means of control over the conversation, the live show demands you to surrender yourself to the moment. The boundaries existing within an interview are pushed way out when I’m going to see a live gig. Here, the less I know the better. Without the safety net of expectations, my eyes and ears are going to absorb everything. I’m fully present. 

Taja Cheek of L’Rain described it best during her opening set. Closing her eclectic, largely instrumental set, she approached the audience with a simple request: to take a couple of deep breaths together. Synchronized inhales and exhales echoed around the theater as Cheek reminded us all to embrace the present moment, while we could all stand together in the same room like this. Here we all were with no indication of what was coming next, the most raw and vulnerable moment a performer could take advantage of. And take advantage of she did. 

Following our final exhale, Cheek absorbed us all into her personal garden, her whistling bird-calls sounding across the room with the support of her loop pedal. Talented at creating a new sense of otherworldly atmosphere, she and the band added layers of ethereal instrumentals, the venue slowly filling with air like a balloon. The thing is, the balloon kept filling, filling, filling. L’Rain’s instrumentals gradually grew sloppier, jagged, spilling out into the floor. Before we could catch another breath, the balloon bursts and Cheek falls to the ground screaming bloody murder. Like a legitimate performance art piece, her head is pressed to the stage, the drummer is thrashing his cymbals, the rest of the band is half-heartedly swinging their instruments, and all I can think is “holy shit”. I’m smiling, though, because there was no way in hell I could have predicted what I had just witnessed. 

As much as the live music itself is an experience, so too are the people watching. In between sets I eavesdropped on conversations I had nothing to do with, stole glances at strangers hoping we wouldn’t make awkward eye contact––tried to become invisible. A man beside me was infodumping about psychedelics to his two other friends, emphasizing its medicinal properties and healing benefits. I should mention that all of these guys were most definitely on shrooms. I played a game with myself trying to count how many dudes were here with beards, glasses, and ponytails but I quickly lost count. Later, I walked past a girl who was most certainly intoxicated and completely lost in the music. She was like an anthropomorphic lava lamp and I wished I felt that free. 

The main event was introduced under a shadowy blue light, shining white orbs dancing across the stage. Avey Tare (David Portner) got hold of his guitar as Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) and Deakin (Joshua Dibb) took their places. Geologist (Brian Weitz) graced the stage wearing a headlamp and not one of us questioned it. I quickly realized why those guys from earlier had decided to trip during the show––Animal Collective’s set was defined by their alien sound and whimsical tone. Paper-like animations danced behind the band on the screen, illuminated by bright pinks, greens, and blues. The band’s sound broke the mold of traditional melodies and took noise experimentation to lengths I hadn’t yet heard live. Their set flowed seamlessly from one song into the next, sometimes I forgot where something started and where it ended. Parts of it felt like slow motion. 

Somewhere along the way Animal Collective sprinkled in several tracks off their latest record “Time Skiffs”, including “Prester John”, “Dragon Slayer”, “Strung with Everything”, “We Go Back”, and one of my personal favorites “Cherokee”. Once it was time for the encore and the band exited the stage, somewhere to my right was a group of the most hypermasculine and robust sounding men I heard the whole night. There was something about the bursting of one passionate and guttural YEAAAAAH after another following a string of mellow psychedelic tracks that was truly the icing on the cake. 

The encore began with “Screens”, accompanied by possibly the most terrifying graphic I’ve my eyes have ever seen of people in colorful morph suits crawling eerily across the screen (after the show I promptly walked into my roommate’s bedroom, got on the ground, and tried recreating what I’d witnessed). Yet another standout song for me was their final encore “For Reverend Green” off 2007’s “Strawberry Jam”. The choppy, crunchy guitars, slightly staggering vocals, and sudden screaming of parts of the lyrics scratched the itch in my brain in ways I can’t really explain (once more, my roommate received an incoherent but impassioned rendition from me). 

I suppose the moral of the story here is: sometimes you should go see a band you know next to nothing about, because you will be surprised––maybe a little caught off guard––but you’ll definitely have a story to tell your roommate when you come home at the end of the night. 

Photos and words by Weronika Koleda.

Listen to Animal Collective *HERE*!

Listen to L’Rain *HERE*!

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