The Dismemberment Plan played two nights at Webster Hall last weekend, as part of its first tour since disbanding in 2003. Last night, it was refreshing for long-time fans to see how little things had changed. Frontman Travis Morrison was still a charming host (he had light fun with guitarist Jason Caddell’s hoarse, flu-ridden voice, claiming that they had recruited Lemmy from Motorhead for the reunion tour), he still danced like a spazz and he still inserts bits of other people’s songs during the encore. (This time around it was Far East Movement’s “Like A G6” and The National’s “Afraid Of Everyone,” which got a full verse and chorus. The last time I saw them they riffed on Hot Hot Heat’s “Bandages,” which should give you a sense of how long they’ve been gone.)
The band is touring behind a vinyl reissue of the 1999 touchstone Emergency & I, which was performed almost in its entirety last night, and demonstrated that not much has changed with the group’s MVP rhythm section either. Bassist Eric Axelson and drummer Joe Easley have only played together for a one-off reunion in 2008, but they seemingly haven’t missed a beat. Which is impressive, because there’s a lot of beats with these two. They can still replicate the complicated, precisely chopped-up tracks created by the likes of Timbaland and Roni Size, which is an impressive feat. But even more impressively, unlike the handful of math rock and jam band types that can perform similar techniques, Axelson (who still does his circular gyrations while he plays, in case you were wondering) and Easley (who still plays in gym shorts), leave plenty of space for the song to breathe, and never overwhelm the Dismemberment Plan’s tricky compositions. It’s no wonder that after watching the band’s recent performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, Questlove called “these mofos tight.” They’re probably the only pair who could challenge the Roots at this point.
It was a joyous night of fans singing and yelling for songs they loved, which reached its apex with a word-for-word sing-a-long of “You Are Invited” that reached Dashboard Confessional levels of audience participation. (This writer will admit that there was a time when that defiantly vulnerable song was something he desperately needed to hear, and can tell that he was far from along in that regards.) But despite all the joy, it was also depressing to think of other ways in which things were still the same. When the Dismemberment Plan started catching people’s ears a decade ago, what stood out was the band’s willingness to venture into genres like dance music and R&B with open minds and sincere hearts during a time when indie rock was strictly a cordoned-off zone, and to their immense credit they never once played these influences for ironic value or shtick. (Even the occasional hip-hopisms that crept into Morrison’s lyrics felt sincere and earned.) Instead, the group blended these ideas with the knotty-post punk of their native D.C. (think Jawbox or Fugazi), and Morrison’s Elvis Costello-worthy storytelling. At their best, this band was the perfect blend of joy and anxiety, both in the lyrics and the song-structure.
In the years since they’ve been gone indie rock has become much more open to outside influence, but watching them last night was a reminder of how far the genre has to go to catch-up with the ease with which they merged forms that seemingly didn’t belong together. At the same time, few people can still touch Morrison’s ability to merge an eye for details that capture the exact shade of despair with a humane “hey, we’ve all been there” tone and a palpable joy to just be allowed to get onstage and sing (and though his solo career gets maligned to an absurdly unfair degree, it’s worth noting that Morrison can’t reach his band’s heights on his own either.) All the members of the Dismemberment Plan have moved on and grown up since calling it quits, but let’s hope that this is one of the Mission Of Burma reunions that sticks. The world still needs these guys, and it’s hard to imagine that a band this inventive couldn’t find some new tricks.