I walk out of the Troubadour on Friday night with the sound of horns still ringing in my ears, vibrant and unshakeable as my new-held belief that Dan Bejar is most certainly not a chill dude.
On the side of the Troubadour overlooking the stage is a small room. This is where Dan Bejar et al hang out during the opening act. The curtains in the room are pulled shut, but inside you can catch little flickers of action– a sleeve of somebody important, maybe; their half-finished drink on the windowsill. The spectacle is surprisingly tantalizing. Most people keep one eye trained on the sill throughout the pre-show shuffle: (“Hey, is that the sax guy”) while mushing themselves between the elbows of strangers. Tonight’s crowd is noticeably old. The guy next to me is sipping whiskey while rapidly balding. It strikes me that I’ve never seen so much chest hair in Los Angeles before.
After too long, all eight pieces of Destroyer filter out of the room, down the stairs, and to the stage with Mr. Dan Bejar himself bringing up the rear. His look is best described as trademark disheveled. He’s got a faceful of ambitious stubble that blends seamlessly into his tangly black mane. He rivals the roadie (perched off in the shadowy corner, stage-left) by measures of both denim and self regard. By contrast, the other band members are as plain as they are clean. They take their marks expeditiously, start tuning up, etc. while their fearless leader shambles to the micstand at center stage. He touts two open beer bottles like a stubborn-fisted infant before taking a knee and frowning at the beers like he’s giving fatherly advice. He take a swig of one, then the other.
In a moment the band sets in with the punchy glowing opening of “Chinatown” and the crowd cheers in support. Bejar, still kneeling, waits a full thirty seconds before finally straightening up and uttering his first words of the evening– “You can’t. Believe. The way the wind’s talking to the sea…” To be fair, he chose them well. He sings with his eyes closed mostly and it’s halfway through the first song before its clear he notices the audience. An interestingly note: it’s impossible to tell whether the man is out of his mind or shitfaced drunk; his vocals are pitch perfect.
The band is incredible, but it’s also obvious that they work for Bejar. He’s most certainly not a showman– he doesn’t care for the limelight. So whenever there’s a break in the vocals, a solo, he’s got a twisted habit of staggering away from center stage over to the soloist and watching them cruelly until they finish. What’s more, during the extended instrumental part of “Savage Night at the Opera” he actually scurries offstage and up the steps to the room. The audience is stunned. He’s in there for no more than three seconds– (I counted)– three seconds and then he hustles back down to the mic without a word. Not chill. He does this twice more over the course of the show. Another fun antic: he actually reads from a lyric sheet for two of the songs. And it probably goes without saying, but he’s not really subtle about it either. His face is blocked with the sheet for the better part of “3000 Flowers.”
All told, however, they sound amazing. With Bejar’s magic slur– intentional or not– preserved perfectly, the biggest difference between the album and the live show is definitely the horns. On the record, they’re distant, cascading, pensive. Up close, they tower above the other instruments, breathtaking and deafening, nipping at each other’s heels, spiraling up impossibly high. Most songs feature an epic bout of horns that leaves the audience swaying glassy-eyed like Bejar. Everyone is really into it. The dude next to me swirls his whiskey and does a really uncool dance involving snapping. Up front, an aggressively stoned teenager headbangs to the horn solos. And when they start in with “Bay of Pigs” for the encore, it’s clear they’re going to have to mop the audience after the floor after the show.
(“Listen, I’ve been drinking, as our house lies in ruins…”)
Dan Bejar is the man, unchillness notwithstanding.
Review by Max Lebo