Yeasayer is in an odd place right now. Last night the Brooklyn-based psych-pop foursome played a sold-out show at the Music Hall Of Williamsburg in support of its upcoming album, Fragrant World, but earlier in the day the group had generated some minor controversy relating to singer Chris Keating’s statements in a recent Rolling Stone interview, specifically his distate for R. Kelly (“He’s a piece of shit.”) and his hopes for the future of R&B (“gay it up a little”). His comments were quickly picked up by various publications, and many groans were shared over Keating’s phrasing and the tendency for indie-rock dudes to pontificate about how to fix pop music. The band even responded to some of its critics via its Twitter account. Did this online dust-up have any effect on the band’s live set?
Uh, no. Not really. Even though the concert was filmed and streamed online, it’s not as if Keating was going to pause the good vibes of the concert to take shots at R. Kelly or weigh in on the new Drake/Aaliyah track. He mostly stuck to friendly, non-confrontational banter (“What’s up, New York?”), while occasionally acknowledging the audiences that might be watching online all over the globe (“What’s up, Poland?”). That type of surface-level cosmopolitanism is indicative of Yeasayer’s vaguely mystical and inspirational brand of indie rock, which grabs textures and rhythms from around the globe then mashes them into familiar song structures. The band’s approach has garnered it comparisons to everyone from art-rock stalwarts like David Byrne to umm…folk-pop luminaries Rusted Root. For a band that’s mostly about good times and hedonism, Yeasayer has proven to be oddly divisive.
The band opened its set with Fragrant World single “Henrietta,” which was met enthusiastically by a crowd that was ready to bob along to even the band’s most meandering jams. I was mostly just staring at the decor for the first two songs. With hubcap-like objects hung like stationary mobiles in the background and lasers shooting in all directions, the stage resembled a steampunk bunker designed by Grease’s Danny Zuko. For the third song Yeasayer played All Hour Cymbals‘ “2080,” the band’s apocalyptic dance party track and probably still its best song. Throughout the set Keating writhed and shimmied with his unbuttoned shirt trailing behind him, often dancing with a goofy grin on his face that seemed to say, “Isn’t this silly?”
New songs like “Longevity” were fun but also revealed some of the band’s limitations as a live entity. Many of the precisely layered samples on the albums turn to mush in a live setting, and the drumming rarely felt loud enough, lacking the cosmic “oomph” needed to sell these interstellar rave songs. But when the band played its poignant anthems, particularly Odd Blood‘s “Madder Red” and “Ambling Alp,” it was tough to resist the charms. Guitarist and sometimes vocalist Anand Wilder was the sneaky all-star of the evening, filling each song with bits of static and noise. Though the group has never garnered the nearly universal acclaim of fellow mystics Animal Collective or the arena-packing status of Brooklyn psych-pop peers MGMT, Yeasayer carved out a peculiar niche as the friendly jam band that doesn’t really jam, the joyful pop band that doesn’t really write hits. There’s a goofy populism at work in Yeasayer’s best material, and as a live band these guys at their best when they’re inspiring a communal swoon.
That connection between the band and the audience became all the more clear during “Alp” when Keating descended into the crowd, helping the everyone sing along to the “dumb words” of the band’s biggest sorta-hit. At one point Keating took a pair of sunglasses from a happy dancer in the audience and put them on as he sang. As the song ended, he climbed back onstage and was careful to get the glasses back to the guy he took them from, perhaps eager to prove that despite his harsh words for critics and R. Kelly, he’s a softie at heart.