Prior to their gig at The Wilbur Theater on Monday night, I am ashamed to say that my knowledge of Dirty Projectors was more limited than it should have been.
Without really having given them a proper listen, I had somewhat written them off. The notion of a New York band with a front man who refers to himself as a "musical director" and a revolving list of featured artists longer than the Patriots entire preseason roster, to me, seemed far too in line with the type of pretentious drivel you might hear described when pushing through a congregation of roll-up smoking Berklee undergrads on Mass Ave. The fact that they’ve worked with Bjork and David Byrne also failed to sell me on the band. Though I respect both artists, one couldn’t help but feel that there might be undertones of desperation to remain relevant with the "hippest" of today’s youth. Even last night’s venue unsettled me slightly. The Wilbur hosts musical events all the time.
Normally, however, when I notice who’s playing there, I am struck with the thought that "my Mum and Dad would probably dig that" and carry on with my day.
So, it was with trepidation, envisioning a group of talented yet unenthusiastic New York hipsters with disdain for their audience of mere mortals, that I took my seat in the front row of The Wilbur’s balcony. Within minutes of the band’s set, however, I was drawn forward in my seat and hanging over the railing. The six permanent members of Dirty Projectors, lead by the undoubtedly uber-talented band architect, Dave Longstreth, certainly didn’t lack any on-stage energy.
As with their general sound, there is so much going on when the band performs that it is difficult to know where to focus your attention. Thankfully, throughout the show, if the services of a certain band member were not required, individuals left the stage for a well-deserved break (all did this at some point with the exception of Longstreth), sometimes returning within the same song on cue to play their own breathtaking role on a track. Even with dwindled numbers on stage, the sound of the band is never minimal. "Two Doves," a duet between Longstreth and keyboard player and sample master, Angel Deradoorian was as big and beautiful as anything else in the set.
With high profile collaborations in their canon, Dirty Projectors wouldn’t be criticized for shying away from songs that, on record, feature a Bjork here or a Byrne there. The ambition and talent of the band, however, doesn’t allow for any backing down from the challenges of a live performance. When Longstreth picked up his acoustic guitar (his third or fourth guitar of the set) and the group went crashing into "Knotty Pine," there was no sense that the song was lacking an iconic Talking Head. On the songs performed from "Mount Wittenberg Orca" the recent full-length album recorded with Bjork, Dirty Projectors’ female contingent (Deradoorian, Haley Dekle, and Amber Coffman) were more than capable of hitting the kind of impossibly high notes that would make any Icelandic avant-garde diva proud. There was a feeling midway through the set that these almost chipmunk-like harmonies may grow tiresome. But, for the most part, they were so cleverly altered, sampled, and placed, that every time the three ladies blasted them out, they washed over the crowd triumphantly and were met with appreciative cheers.
Because Dirty Projectors produce such and abundance of energetic sound and never allow a song to settle into any thing that could be described as boring, the band conjures up some unexpected comparisons while on stage. Some of the more melancholy notes hit by Longstreth on songs like "Rise Above" (which was used to close the show), for example, bring to mind those of Antony and the Johnsons or Rufus Wainwright. And, on the fabulous, "Stillness is the Move," guitarist Amber Coffman and vocalist Haley Dekle seemed to be suddenly channeling a pair of soulful RnB divas of yester year. Though Monday’s was a set full of astonishing moments this track marked the highlight of the gig and probably should have been saved for the encore.
Aside from the show itself, a few other things happened on Monday evening at the Wilbur. Firstly, I was reminded of the importance of leaving any harbored prejudgments at the door of a live musical performance; you might look a bit of a fool when the band you’re seeing ends up blowing your mind. Second, as much as I’d denied their existence in the past, I became a Dirty Projectors fan. Check them out live, and you might too.