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Did he do that? Dan Deacon.

Photo: Joe Putrock

The Irony Is Hot

By Josh Potter

Dan Deacon

EMPAC, Feb. 13

When Deerhunter played EMPAC’s concert hall last fall, singer Bradford Cox quipped that not enough jokes had been told in the building. But as members of a sold-out audience used the lobby for an impromptu game of freeze tag before Dan Deacon’s maniac set of spazz pop and crowd-participatory dancing, levity, it seemed, was the one thing that could be counted on.

Dressed in a Steve Urkel T-shirt and oversized glasses, the Baltimore resident cut a peculiar figure in a house of high art. With nothing but a table of effects pedals, a Casio keyboard (with all the black keys ripped off), a microphone, two strobe lights and a totem pole topped with a stoplight and a glowing green skeleton head situated in the middle of the crowd, his approach to musicmaking is one of the few that works as well in a dormitory basement (his last Troy performance was at RPI’s Ground Zero) as at museums like the Whitney. This is no coincidence, as Deacon, who holds a masters degree in electro-acoustic and computer music, began his career crafting highly experimental drone records and clattering sound collages. With source material as crass and referential as Butthead’s laugh and children’s books-on-tape, he soon became a sort of troubadour of the ADD generation, performing giddy, ironic versions of “Splish Splash” and “Mr. Big Stuff” (through a computer voice evoking Stephen Hawking) that aimed for nothing more than sugar-high glee.

However, last year Deacon recorded Bromst, an album that seemed to push beyond novelty, that embraced the camp of his prior work but aimed for something more honest and enduring, something more like joy, or, as he put it, less of a party and more of a celebration.

It was fitting, then, that the show began with a synchronized group breath—Deacon playing MC as much as musician—and a countdown from 10, with the numbers 3, 2, and 1 subbed out for “Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, EMPAC,” “(insert your favorite Lion King character),” and “(that movie’s most noble character).” Upon which the houselights dropped, the crowd surged toward the center, four-wall video projections flashed, and “Red F,” the set’s first convulsively uptempo tune, commenced.

Participation in Deacon’s goofy scrum demanded immediate surrender of social inhibitions, as throughout the night he had the crowd form a large circle, stage a dance competition, mimic one crowd member’s flamboyant pantomime, lay hands upon a neighbor’s head to absolve them of their deepest remorse, and, in the most ambitious feat, form a human tunnel that snaked through the EMPAC lobby and back around to the dance floor where one audience member sang solo to a Casio pre-set of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Rule number one, he announced, was to dance “sassy as fuck,” and when the level of participation didn’t meet his needs, he advised the crowd to think of “how the Peanuts dance, or if Jurassic Park had a dance scene.” The only ill will all night was directed toward a few wallflowers whom Deacon jokingly referred to as his parents.

As performance, Deacon’s set is simply a lot of fun, but as art, the act embraces a basic imperative that an increasing number of (post-) experimental artists are coming to understand. In the info age, kitsch is unavoidable, but rather than follow hollow references (Disney movies, et al) to empty artifice and cynical escapism, Deacon inhabits the profane delight of cartoon voices, new-age synthesizers (and their corresponding projections), bubbly aerobics instruction, and the raw, primordial power of fast music and flashing lights to induce a fugue state that art and culture tend to distrust.

As useful counterpoint, guitarist Charlie Looker, of opening avant black-metal band Extra Life, said “I don’t usually like to be this positive. It can be such fatuous entertainer bullshit.” This it can be, but Deacon’s set seemed to contend that, although fatuous, there’s nothing bullshit about collective reverie.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Beyond Novelty They never used cartoon voices or cheap synthesizers, but they did sing about lifeguards. Blotto celebrated their 30th anniversary on Saturday with a headlining set at the Local 518 concert, presented by radio station WEXT at the “Exit Dome” (aka the WMHT Studios in Rensselaer). The band’s singular brand of fun-time rock & roll capped a night that featured sets from Alta Mira, Ashley Pond Band, John Scarpulla and Matt Durfee; and the funds raised from the event help to keep WEXT on the air.



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