The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner were onto something when they booked BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House for their inaugural Crossing Brooklyn Ferry Festival. All three-tiers and 2095 seats of the lofty, ornate hall were designed for nights of exuberant musical worship. And, throughout Friday’s five-hour concert series, headlined by Brooklyn breakout St. Vincent, the hall was put to task.
Of the four bands onstage Friday, Brooklyn’s So Percussion benefited most from the ample space allotted to them (St. Vincent’s Annie Clark would benefit from the space not strictly allotted to her, but more on that later). Before the band’s set began at 7 p.m. the stage was already covered with the various set pieces it would employ: a propped string of bongos running lengthwise down the center of the stage, a table and four chairs cluttered with what appeared to be radio receivers, and a fleet of four symmetrical drum kits ringing the stage’s outer edge. The slap-happy quartet (essentially the Blue Man Group minus the blue) started the set with an excerpt from Steve Reich’s epic percussion suite, “Drumming,” each member taking the stage in turn to build upon and invariably alter a steady rhythm until it became an unrecognizable raindrop battery.
The 13-minute piece was a mesmerizing, enviable display of rhythmic savvy that was most impressive when a drummer changed the entire tempo by dropping his beats a fraction of a note. “Drumming” was so rad, in fact, that it totally out-shined So Percussion’s following performance of “Apart,” a ringing, howling experiment written for chromatic tuning forks (cooler in theory than in person) and finally a drum kit quartet composed by Glenn Kotche (who also scored the short film Michael Brown, running throughout the weekend in the BAM Rose Cinema next door). Between cranking air raid sirens and indulging various spazzes of aux noise, So Percussion’s concluding quartet filled the opera house with the evening’s first thunderous wave of sound, adequately foreboding the rumbles still to come.
Between sets another tremendous perk of playing the BAM fest was made apparent by the regiment of no less than 15 stage hands who cleared So Percussion’s considerable setup within a few minutes. It took even less time to build former Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton’s gear. When the frizz-coifed guitarchitect emerged, he mounted a single mesh pedestal at center stage where his MacBook, synth and guitar were already waiting for him. Cross legged and silent for the entire 45-minute set, Braxton affected Alice’s hookah-smokin’ caterpillar on some regal mushroom in the midst of a hazy, blazey swamp-scape, and he made music to match. Like So Percussion, Tyondai began with a single beat that he gradually transformed into his own raucous orchestra. Instead of pounding on physical objects, though, his layered and looping rhythms were entirely digital dispatches.
Throughout the ostensibly improvised performance, Tyondai warped beats into a croaking, whistling, farting parade of ProTools swag, occasionally veering toward convergences of dubstep wobble and Italo-house pulse. Around him, smoke and polychromatic light effects swirled and morphed to the music, picking up the slack when a particular beat hit a noisy dead-end. Still, Braxton never lingered on one theme too long, and by the time his set ended the crowd hollered gracious approval from their seats. Immediately after he left though, the young and restless showed their faces, crowding the previously empty orchestra pit in preparation for the night’s final stretch of Brooklyn rock reverence.
The Antlers, currently on tour as a full-bodied four-piece, opened for St. Vincent with a set that seemed hard to top. Focusing on tracks from 2011′s Burst Apart, the band hit their stride right away with a lush performance of “Roll Together.” Gorgeous sound was given matching stage production in the form of golden beams of light slashed in static swaths over the players as if Peter Silberman’s mighty falsetto had upset decades-old structural damage and punched holes in the opera house ceiling. More so than anyone of Friday, the ambient indie rockers made triumphant use of their surroundings, rocketing Silberman’s soaring voice and the band’s waves of guitar around the room and up to the domed ceiling of the Howard Gilman Opera House. If not for the building’s brick insulation, you could probably hear Antlers roaring out “Parentheses” on the Supermoon.
By the time St. Vincent’s gear was in place, the orchestra pit and most of the theater aisles were clogged with plaid-clad people who showed up too late to nab a seat. At first I was pissed to have to abandon my aisle seat to see above the heads of new arrivals, unaware that my vacant chair would eventually become another prop in Annie Clark’s posh-punk rampage. The lady of the evening took the stage just after 11, decked all in black from frizzy mane to leather heels, and was treated to a royal reception. She repaid the applause right away with a reverb-punishing “Marrow.” Aided by a drummer on stage right and two keyboardists at left, (all in formal wear, at least for a minute) the Actor spell-along song pulsed with an undeniable dance beat that had pit attendants hopping, fist-pumping and grinding before Clark’s first venomous guitar solo wheezed through the electrified opera hall.
“I love the various levels of chatter going on right now,” Clark said between songs early in her set. “It ranges from, ‘Let’s watch TV together,’ to, ‘Let’s spend the rest of our lives locked in matrimony together.’”
Clark is an artist who understands her appeal, and knows how to work it to everyone’s satisfaction. Most of her set focused on the faster, chunkier numbers from last year’s massively praised Strange Mercy, earning expected accolades for the fist-pumping grind of “Cheerleader,” the theremin shadow-boxing in “Northern Lights” and the shout-out to mom in “Year Of The Tiger.” Clark’s go-to move guitar move is this sort of shocked China doll stumble, in which her bulging eyes and helplessly trembling head betray the apparent power of the grumbling solos trickling from her hands as if by forces she does not understand. The audience spared extra applause for these solos, but the big moment came when Clark passed the guitar to one of her keyboardists for new banger “Krokodil” and ventured unadorned into the crowd. She moshed through the pit amid a parade of camera phones, mounted the railing at the edge of the orchestra, stumbled into ecstatic dancers and eventually mounted the empty chair I vacated at the beginning of her set, patting fans on the head for balance and swinging her mic cable in tow. Then, unexpected as she appeared, Clark crowd-surfed away.
St. Vincent returned for an encore of “Your Lips Are Red,” but even the song’s raucous solo was a whimper following her audience invasion during “Krokodil.” Like a gracious god, Clark delivered everything her acolytes asked for and more, even anointing a lucky few. “She…touched my head!” one girl next to me gushed as the house lights came back on. Indeed, she did. And it was good.