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Sorry, everyone who went to Glastonbury. While you were watching Gorillaz reveal that a few good singles don't equate to being a 'good' headline band, a couple of thousand of us were watching Dirty Projectors play one of the gigs of the year. Sorry. While you were watching Matt Bellamy do another of those solos, we were watching Dave Longstreth cut more inventive, more intriguing sounds, without a bank of 'space rock' effect pedals.
More important than all that, the band's special arrangement of The Getty Address with New York chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound received a rare airing in full (it was previously played only at two shows in NYC and LA). For those that don't know, it is a concept album, about Don Henley, founding member of the Eagles. The story goes: Henley sits on a ridge pondering death etc, comes down from the ridge, seeks wilderness, journeys east across America, meets a tour guide called Sacagawea at Gettysburg, and ends up in a massive car park. The album is slight on record, but here it is immeasurably boosted by the 20 extra players, who augment the sound with French horns and saxes and violins and trombone and marimbas and bassoons and...you get the picture. Pan pipes and gaffa tape also feature.
Before the piece kicks off, it's easy to mistake the orchestra tuning up for an abstract opener, a piece of avant garde instrumentation. Then Dirty Projectors join Alarm Will Sound on stage, the female members in matching primary colour hoods and dresses, Longstreth a lanky figure bouncing around on the balls of his feet like a jangled puppet, and it starts. Longstreth maintains the aesthetic throughout, as well as acting the informal conductor (although there is a real life one doing the job proper), cuing drum beats and other parts with feet taps and arms swings. The atmosphere isn't that of the typical indie gig – unless I've been playing, this is the first time I have been in a seat for the duration. It's more reverent, less cheering, more clapping. It could have been staid; it wasn't.
As everyone has come to expect from the band, the harmonised vocals from the three female members are breathtaking throughout, complex. On 'Henley's Dream', they slowly rise a semitone, in unison, in tune, complemented by blown jugs and flutters of bassoon and flute. Beat that, anyone. Dirty Projectors were a solo concern when The Getty Address was recorded, so the replacement of synth voices with authentic boosts things by itself. Given the addition of layers and layers of fully realised orchestral composition behind them, tracks like 'Not Having Found' sound brutally melodic. It gains a tapping xylophone and marimba (I think...) backbeat, behind angelic chorals and a clatter of drums from Brian Mcomber, rhythmically perfect throughout, tricksy patterns clattered away on the skins. 'I Will Truck' is given a swaggering strut, drums thumped hard with Longstreth chopping out riffs and chords. 'Tour Along The Potomac' conjures feelings of river boat drifting in its lazy burbles of timpani and ska guitar, while 'Time Birthed Spilled Blood' takes a cue from 'On The Street Where You Live', blending it with cowbell and strings into some kind of pop song, without much notion of verses or chorus.
If anything, this is too much – pieces of modern classical music (which is what are played tonight) this complicated need repeated listens to be properly appreciated. On first listen all that emerges is a general feeling that 'This is amazing', with little appreciation of 'This is amazing because...' You just have to trust your subconscious.
After the interval, the band come back, sadly shorn of orchestra, to play a more conventional (if the words ever applies to Dirty Projectors) set of Bitte Orca material. They open with 'Two Doves', just Longstreth on guitar and Angel Deradoorian on vocals, and it's beautiful; later they have fun drawing out 'Stillness Is A Move'. We only get six or so songs before they vacate the stage again, after yet more amazing playing, more skronked out guitar lines, more choral mastery, more everything. The lights go up, but the applause refuses to die – the crowd draw the band back, and we get 'When The World Comes To An End', due for release shortly on Mount Wittenberg Orca. It features a breathtaking vocal pattern, over a fairly conventional song progression. You might have seen it on Jimmy Fallon early in the year (or on YouTube).
The Getty Address was a record released before a band were hyped up, allowing Longstreth time to develop a sound – the fingerprints of what was realised on Bitte Orca are all over the vocal scoring, polyrhythms and complex song patterns. Revisiting the piece with a chamber orchestra perhaps allows Longstreth the chance to rewrite it in retrospect, to achieve what he originally wanted, now that he has the creative confidence and the financial resources. Whether that is the case, tonight sees Dirty Projectors dominant, glorious, and offering the best that avant garde rock can offer. I'm sorry you missed it.
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