Panda Bear Previews 'Tomboy' at the Fox Theater

Categories: Last Night
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Richard Haick
Panda Bear
@ The Fox Theater, Oakland
September 6, 2010 

Better than: Camp counselor-ing on shrooms, which could be cool. 

It's becoming increasingly clear that Noah Lennox, known to animals and hipsters as Panda Bear, is to experitronica champions Animal Collective what Jonny Greenwood is to Radiohead, both composers a premium fuel for their bands' fringe-forward engines, operating in the sounds of risk, indifferent to reward, and always stage right or left. And when the two tour the earth on the righteous solo path, expectations are dutifully discarded, concepts are reconceptualized and moments of fleeting brilliance are regular. Word seems to be getting around. Last night's Labor Day-bookender of a booking at Fox Theater drew a dense, entranced crowd, and hallucinogens were not necessarily sold separately. Tie-dye -- yes.

The Panda Bear live, tinker-as-I-go mandate isn't much different from the Animal Collective philosophy. For each, the stage serves more as a recording studio, where much is improvised, songs are re-worked and mixed (including the occasional Animal Collective vocal riff) and everything may or may not be at the beta stage of sound engineering. Add to that the mystery surrounding Panda Bear's soon-to-be-released LP Tomboy -- two tracks of which have seen the light of day -- and we had ourselves a case of art in flux at the Fox.

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Richard Haick
And trust that "art" is the operative word in the MOMA-approved world of Lennox. Every song starts with a workable palette, whether it's the trance-chant of "Comfy in Nautica" (from 2007's hipsterversally approved Person Pitch), the looping major chord progression of "Tomboy" or the skip-hop drum track of "Slow Motion" (also coming soon to an album leak near you). Then come the samples, the lines of synthed-out experiments and the echoing mantras of Lennox (not to be confused with the mantras of David). 

To be sure, Lennox is not an entirely comfortable songwriter in the traditional sense, which should come as no surprise to fans of Panda Bear or Animal Collective (bandmate Avey Tare handles the lion's share of the singing; Panda Bear handles the panda's). There were occasional moments of lyrical clarity on Monday night, but what comes through the mic means more to compositional texture than it does to sentimental significance. From the predominately yet-to-be-released set list, there was little to suggest that will change on the new record, but what's striking is the volume of vocal work given the vague nature of the lyrics and the complexity of the instrumental backing. Less might be more, but less might also dilute the live-ness of the live, real-time experience.

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If Person Pitch took listeners to spaces foreign to any current band -- Animal Collective included -- the material heard Monday night from Tomboy promises to return to places closer to the A.C. ideal, with strong, arrhythmic beats, reverb-friendly/beachy guitar and the idea that brief explosions of instrumentation can make ten minutes of static seem worthwhile. But to the common ear, it's entirely foreign, like something you'd hear on Pandora (where we can only assume avatar pandas thrive). 

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Richard Haick
One question that comes to mind whenever soundboards and samplers are involved onstage is the possibility of adding musicians to help flesh out the live instrumentation. On this tour, Lennox is still flanked by two freestanding speakers (and, of course, the Fox's appropriately trippy Lion King the Musical-y statues), and wields a busy, summery guitar. So the visual focal point of Panda Bear's set was the video accompaniment, which took on added significance thanks to some clever, self-aware allusions. Dated clips -- of a couple stripping down and getting down on a roller coaster, of frenzied girls at The Beatles's Shea Stadium cluster-orgy, and a montage of teens jumping up and down on a trampoline (mixed with a clip of a hungry shark's jaw agape) -- spoke to the '60s psychedelic era and aesthetic Panda Bear finds enchanting and inspiring. But it's 2010, and digital refraction distorts the picture, much as it does in Panda Bear's audible framework. He begs the question: if the counterculture, summer of lovin' flower children of the '60s had ProTools, where would music be today? 

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Richard Haick
Nite Jewel
Opening the night was Los Angeleno bedroom-funk chanteuse Nite Jewel, who may have found herself a niche with her recent EP Am I Real? Let's call her the St. Vincent of bedroom disco, something along the lines of Junior Boys but with an adult contemporary twist -- not necessarily a bad thing. She charmed with a few numbers off the recent release, closing with the title track, an almost-R&B-flavored jam spun with impressive vocal tricks and groove-time guitar. But can R&B and/or disco succeed onstage without any evident attitude? The anti-diva is here, I suppose.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: The last time I tie-dyed a shirt, my favorite song was Raffi's cover of "Octopuss's Garden."

The Crowd: Yes, a girl was wearing a Pablo Sandoval Panda Bear hat. Major League Baseball and indie-rock do mix, as it happens. Also, a fortysomething Hungarian dude noticed my Budapest shirt, and another fortysomething dude definitely got a hold of some E from an intern or something.

Overheard in the crowd: School's back in session it seems -- "Cap and trade is definitely the smartest way out of this mess." "Nite Jewel had some sort of jazz fusion thing going on, but it worked."

Set List: "Comfy in Nautica," "Ponytail," "Tomboy," "Slow Motion" and six titled but unidentified tracks off the imminent new album.

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