Last Night: Dean & Britta's Warhol Tribute

Categories: Last Night
dean and britta.jpg

Dean & Britta's "13 Most Beautiful... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Tests"
Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009
Palace of Fine Arts

Better than:
Watching Warhol's Screen Tests in a cold, silent art museum.

It was a perfect pairing, really. Pop music's beautiful, Velvet Underground-indebted couple pays tribute to other beautiful people filmed by the artist who gave VU an early boost.

Last night, Dean & Britta took the stage at the Palace of Fine Arts for their current, and very unusual, tour. They're on the road with two other musicians and 13 of Andy Warhol's "Screen Tests"--harshly hit, silent black and white clips of Factory regulars filmed close up and without edits for long stretches at a time.




Kicking things off with an Air-esqe space-pop instrumental, the band gave every face a personalized soundtrack. For the most part, the music added complexity to the giant expressions on the screen behind them. The softly-percolating sadness of a woman who was part of the Beat clan was emphasized in Dean & Britta's hushed instrumental, keeping the focus on this stock still face that slowly started crying. The iconic Nico looked vacant as ever during her test, as Britta (Phillips, Wareham's wife and also formerly of Luna) sang a cover of "I'll Keep It With Mine," a song written for Nico by Bob Dylan.

The one other cover the band performed came during Lou Reed's Screen Test--which, along with Billy Name's tough-guy shot in silver sunglasses, had to be the coolest looking take. As a young Reed slowly sucked down a bottle of Coke, Dean sang a version of "I'm Not a Young Man Anymore," a track the singer explained was written in 1966, the same year as Reed's Screen Test was filmed, but only released in the last year on a Velvet Underground bootleg.

Dean added further depth to the experience by interjecting anecdotes about the 13 people who we were seeing on the screen. He spoke of Ingrid Superstar walking out of her apartment in the '80s never to be found again, having left her false teeth and fur coat behind. He explained that Name, a known speed freak, danced naked out the window one night, dropping four stories to his death. Some subjects -- such as Dennis Hopper, one of my all time favorite actors from back in the day--needed little introduction. But Dean's stories wove these underground actors into Warhol's history.

The only hitch in the event came when Dean & Britta performed the music they'd written for these Screen Tests and those songs came with lyrics. Unless they were singing relevant cover songs, Dean's words sounded trite compared to what we were watching on the screen, and his fictional stories for these characters were distracting. The music and films blended together much better when you could create the narrative in your head as the musicians jammed on instrumental Velvet Underground-sounding tunes.

There was enough to read in the faces of these young Warhol worshippers that you didn't need it laid out with some obvious chorus. Better to gaze at the dark shadows in the creases of their eyes, the stoned rolls of their heads, the flickers of confusion as they had to stay silent for so long. They left faint clues in their behavior that were intriguing to try and interpret, and the wordless songs allowed you to go deeper into your imagination while the band's Velvet Underground jangle was stylistically appropriate...and just really fun to hear. 

Critical bias #1: I saw some of these Screen Tests at a museum years ago, and as compelling as the recognizable faces are, it was tough to sit through so many hours where so little happens.

Critical bias #2: I was a Galaxie 500 fan, but Dean Wareham's music seems to grow increasingly benign over time. Save for a couple good Luna singles, it's hard to find the teeth in his songs.

Critical bias #3: That being said, put together a passive movie experience with a passive music experience and you actually had a really cool event, with the mediums playing off one another very well. I was really impressed.

By the way: Dean & Britta are releasing a DVD of the Warhol Screen Tests project this spring. And the San Francisco Film Society, which hosted the performance in San Francisco, announced its next multi-media event is in the works, with tentative plans to have Dengue Fever perform a live score to the movie The Lost World.

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