If they’re not going to deliver, sometimes it’s best when one of your favorite bands just flop outright. When Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti have a bad show, like at Pitchfork Festival a couple summers back, gear gets broken, the set gets aborted, and the crowd is treated, at the very least, to a reality-TV-show-style meltdown so outrageous that it doesn’t diminish the band’s musicianship or the mystique you as a fan have built around their art. But when they’re plain middling, you start to make excuses, point fingers.
It would be easy to blame the clusters of loud-talking girls, drunk dudes groping their girlfriends or overzealous student booking for wrangling an art-rock band into a college gymnasium show. But it might just be that the Dirty Projectors, who have proven themselves consistently in the studio, are not that engaging of a live act. The cursory set they played to a less-than-half-filled room was clean, agreeable, sensible—like singer David Longstreth’s doubled button-down shirts—and largely forgettable but for its nonchalance. Like a good pop act, they played the hits, showed their chops, but seemed distracted, either by latent on-stage tension, the anticlimax of having played on Jimmy Fallon with Major Lazer and the Roots two nights prior, or the very real mixed vibes coming back at them from the crowd.
It’s not that this kind of music can’t work as a big, obnoxious college show. Grizzly Bear enchanted the very same stage a few years back with a dazzling light display and a fluid set that seemed the conceptual extension of the breakout album they released that year. Similarly, Bon Iver has made the jump to a big-stage act with only the requisite quantity of pandering. But the Dirty Projectors seemed stuck somewhere between their humble chamber-pop roots and a demand that has pushed them before more eager audiences.
On the song level, the Dirty Projectors are as good a band as they come, and their execution of “Swing Lo Magellan” and “Offspring Are Blank” boasted album-caliber harmonies between Longstreth and female vocal trio of Amber Coffman, Haley Dekle and Olga Bell. The band’s reliance on vocal harmony in place of excessive guitars is a welcome shift, and frees up plenty of space for Nat Baldwin’s sinewy basslines. “About to Die” and “Gun Has No Trigger” are, therefore, still stunningly effective tunes, even when it’s evident the band aren’t giving it their all. Arriving late in the set, “Wittenberg IV” was a dazzling piece of vocal gymnastics and “Useful Chamber” came closest to conjuring the epic proportions of the band’s studio records, even if Longstreth’s guitar solo felt a bit dashed off.
When Bitte Orca single “Stillness Is the Move” arrived in the encore, what came before fell into relief, illustrating a complexity that makes the band both engaging on record and maddening live. The Coffman-led (Solange Knowles-covered) R&B groove actually started to roil the crowd into party mode, before the Paul Simon-tinged strummer “Impregnable Question” sent the crowd shrugging into the night.