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Arresting Development

Dan Deacon, Myth, and Magic: Some Notes On Exploding Up From The Underground

Frank Hamilton

By Rjyan Kidwell | Posted 6/11/2008

I've seen Dan Deacon many times on his home turf, the warehouse show. After moving to Baltimore in 2004, he mastered that setting over the course of three years of ambitious touring and regular local performances in his living space at the Copy Cat, the old artists' dojo three blocks east of Penn Station. As his blade got sharp, the crowds grew and grew, eventually exceeding what the space could support, and it strained his relationship with the landlord. I was supposed to play a show with Deacon one night last August, a show on his 26th birthday intended to break a yearlong abstinence from performing in the building. After the first two acts, though, Deacon had to get on the microphone and tell everyone--at least 300 kids--to leave. Something to do with the police, I think--I was never totally clear on the details, but I know neither of us got to play that night. Now Deacon is a very positive guy, but I could tell it burned him, returning from a few immensely successful tours to be hassled trying to play in his old home. That was the first night that I started to see the outline of Deacon's heroic mission, and I began to truly understand how his destiny and our city had intertwined. I could also see that the last challenge rising up between him and that destiny was the very sort of beast he had to face Friday, May 30, in the big room at Sonar: an enormous mob of voyeurs.

You're probably curious as to how I knew that virtually all of the 900 people at the club that night were voyeurs, and I'm tempted simply to explain about the kind of sensitivities you develop over 14 years of working in establishments that combine strangers and alcohol and loud music. But in the interest of full disclosure I must confess: I'm actually part voyeur myself. Not a big part, but it does run in my family. Between nature and nurture, my voy-dar is pretty damn reliable.

I went down to Sonar and, as I suspected, the voyeurs were swarming. Most were dressed to blend in and dancing like horny zombies, all of them animated by expectations drawn from the images and video and sound they found with their computers: digital glimpses of Deacon's show made accessible by today's efficient compression algorithms. While waiting for his set to start, I got bored and tried to buttonhole a few random people; it's about as fun as poking pill bugs, but feels less cruel. Both of the hulking, frat-tastic gentlemen I tried to engage just gaped at me as if I had asked them to hold a severed penis until I walked away. I had better luck with a smaller guy named Ian, a recent transplant who works in the video-game industry. I asked him if he loved Dan Deacon, and he said yes without any hesitation. When I asked why, Ian squinted and looked up at the ceiling and thought about it. After a minute or two, standing there watching him think started to make me anxious, so I waved my question away and changed the subject to video games.

Meanwhile, the wisest parts of the mob were clumping in front of the stage. Deacon, as usual, set up his table of gear on the floor, and, normally, if you don't push up for a good spot you won't be able to see much other than a couple of flashing lights in the middle of a churning sea of hair. As Deacon began his performance, I thought about penetrating the mob for a closer look but quickly reconsidered when a better view appeared projected on either side of the stage. A layer of psychedelic video effects obscured some of the details, but settling for the screen made it less likely I'd have to enter a teenager's personal space.

Before playing any music Deacon addressed the crowd over the PA, leading them through a maniac warmup routine that involved stretching and pointing and kneeling down, and then a series of contradictory gestures and light stranger-interaction. This continued for almost the length of a song, and the crowd was enthusiastically participatory.

Then the music started, and it sounded immense. You could feel the kick drums in your throat and behind your ribs. Deacon does very upbeat material, and positive music is always much more convincing when it's loud as hell. The voyeurs were convinced immediately, and they pushed like crazy right up onto Deacon's table and at every side of him. His songs are four-fifths climax, so they don't have to stop pushing until the song is over, and they get especially riled when Deacon sings dramatically, his voice transposed up an octave or two by a Digitech Whammy IV.

The music itself sounds like Lightning Bolt covering John Philip Sousa on Nickelodeon--and I'm not just playing the "this sounds like that" game here, either: This is crucial genealogy. Deacon and his Wham City crew's warehouse shows have always drawn heavily from the mythology surrounding Lightning Bolt and its productive Providence, R.I., art space, Fort Thunder. The Fort Thunder building was demolished in 2002 to make room for a Shaw's supermarket parking lot, but in the six years prior, the artists who lived in Fort Thunder created many bands, comics, posters, costumes, and video work that would gradually be discovered and adored by younger aspiring artists. Their eccentric aesthetic mixed dystopian anxiety with youthful energy. Deacon's music definitely seizes way more on the latter of those two aspects, but when you hear his jams blasting out of a big-ass system, the gnarlier part of the Providence aesthetic peeks--and peaks--through, too.

At the end of the first song Deacon tried to convince everybody to spread out and use more of the space in the room, but most people appeared to assume he was talking to somebody else, and the mob pretty much stayed concentrated around him. As the set continued, he alternated songs with more surrealist calisthenics and two rather complex group activities: an unfortunately short-lived two-man dance circle and a much more successful dance "gauntlet." He shouted out the rules for the complicated games clearly and concisely, but with the kind of urgency often encountered with instructions about how to exit a flaming aircraft.

It built gradually in the tone of his entreaties, and then halfway through the set Deacon confirmed the scent of tension I detected when he announced that he felt "like a second-grade teacher." He was putting it all down, but those voyeurs, they weren't picking it all up. In that great big sweaty great time, there was a dramatic struggle happening just under the surface. Deacon alluded to this struggle in a recent interview with Pitchfork, explaining how his new compositions focused on "mass movement" instead of conventional "dancing at a party."

"As long as the crowds don't become too rowdy or violent, I'm excited for my audience to grow," he said. It sounds clear to me that Deacon has big ideas about what can happen when large groups of people get together in one room, but that he expects the audience to trust and commit completely to his leadership if something transcendent is to be achieved. The crowd that night was undeniably happy, everything was good and fine--the set certainly fulfilled the expectations aroused by the internet images many times over, and that's good as it needs to be for a voyeur. But the underlying tug of war was never completely resolved--it didn't seem good enough for Dan. I have the feeling it won't take many more shows in rooms like that one to teach Deacon that the voyeurs--even when they appear to resist--truly and deeply desire to be bossed around and made into instruments of action. They just sometimes need something more forceful than a friendly invitation to get there.

When voyeurs start to realize they're affecting the thing that they desire, the protective barrier that defines voyeurism begins to crumble. Walls coming down, outside coming in--always a scary thing, and most people's instinct is to pull back. But if you wanna go skinny dipping, you have to jump in the pool: Trying to wade in a little at a time is for suckers; it just doesn't work. It's happening on both sides, too. I sense that Deacon might still be a little scared of the power that comes with conducting enormous crowds--it can taste a little bit fascist. He'll get used to it, though. I mean, Superman is a little bit fascist, too, right? And look at the symbolism underlying the title of Deacon's most recent (and most popular) album, Spiderman of the Rings: Peter Parker, the ordinary boy who gets superhuman powers and decides, despite the challenges presented by his ordinariness, to dedicate himself to the well-being of his fellow man; and Tolkien's epic tale about the little man-child whose bravery saves his whole world from apocalypse. These aren't just cheeky references to popular culture. I think Deacon, Frodo-style, is creeping his way up the mountain to face the very evil that decimated the home of his artistic forebears and has interfered with his own attempts to set up a stable location for Wham City: the forces of greed and gentrification that are cannibalizing American cities and culture.

Back in Providence, in 1999, after persistent rumors of the Fort Thunder building's sale eventually proved to be true, members of the Fort and others sympathetic to the cause spent more than a year trying to influence the process, meeting with preservationists, community activists, and politicians. Despite an outcry of support from far and wide--I personally heard about the threat to Fort Thunder when a Japanese record label mass-mailed a call to arms to every band that had ever performed there--the out-of-state developer Feldco demolished the old mill building and built its strip mall. Later there would be rumors that Feldco slyly bought its way out of promises to set aside a certain number of affordable studio spaces in the new property, the main concession that was made to those protesting the development plan.

The story of Fort Thunder and its frustrating ending looms heavily over the artists and performers in Baltimore today--in every major city, really. We've watched the condos follow us around long enough now to know that we are the unwitting pawns of opportunistic entrepreneurs. We go to "undesirable" places, places the bourgeoisie fear and avoid, because that is where rent is affordable on an artist's wages. If we do not thrive there, we are ignored, but if we do, developers and speculators quickly buy up the neighborhood, erect prohibitively expensive luxury housing, and whine to the police and politicians about the crowds at our shows and the noise made by our bands. Deacon is easily one of the most famous one-man bands in the country right now, but so far he's been powerless to settle the score with the inhumane elements that mercilessly reshape our city around their materialistic ambitions--and so Deacon knows that conventional success is not enough. He knows he's still approaching the climax of his own story, that his destiny lies at a higher altitude. I honestly believe that this man, whom some might call "wacky," aspires to the kind of heroism that far exceeds what it requires to get over with Pitchfork.

When Deacon is comfortable and in control of a crowd, he makes it appear quite easy to turn a familiar situation into a unique and empowering experience. He makes it fun to believe in him. The stretching and pointing, though--that's just a warmup to the real "mass movement" I expect from him. It might only take the symbolic step of raising his table up off the floor, for all to see, and commanding the crowd from an elevated position, or perhaps it might come with the transition from prerecorded electronics into a live band, a plan he described excitedly near the end of his set. But when he does master these 1,000 capacity clubs the way he mastered the warehouse setting, I think Dan Deacon and his army of acolytes are destined to face off with the real estate-obsessed parasites who have been exploiting the artistic community for years. And wouldn't that be wacky?

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