Town Hall on 43rd Street in Manhattan is full of smoke like a 1920s lounge. With red velvet chairs and polished mahogany and giant crystal chandeliers, everything seems like a throwback. Grizzly Bear’s music seems to fit here – sometimes it contains elements of the past, but they are wrapped up in smooth modern twists – reverb, omnichord, a pile of effects pedals on the floor. But there is that choir element, a layering upon one another of four voices; there is the string quartet and the piano; there is the flute and the clarinet. Grizzly Bear’s music comes from another time and it is not now, and it is difficult to say whether it is the past or the future.
I was reading a review of the band’s recently released third album, Veckatimest (please buy it now) which stated that the album was “so good it could potentially end all human conflict.” Their live show is even better, and the sound at Town Hall lends an extra punch – everything echoes off the wall, every sound comes out of everything, from every direction. This is clear from the moment Grizzly Bear break into album opener “Southern Point,” all quick tempo and shoving drums, distant vocals courtesy of guitarist Daniel Rossen, who plays with apparent ease chord after chord that seems impossible. After little time for raucous applause – the audience applauds both at the beginning and end of each song, too excited to hold it back – the band play “Cheerleader,” and it echoes off everything, all bass and slow and concise drums. Frontman Ed Droste trades off vocals with bassist Chris Taylor and drummer Chris Bear – three voices wrapped in Rossen’s reverby guitar. Cheerleader garners rapturous applause from the crowd – as do all the songs off Veckatimest – but the entire room erupts when Rossen plays the slow chords that open Grizzly Bear’s most successful and well-known song, “Knife.” My friend gasps when she recognizes it, and then everything is silent but for Taylor’s vocalizing and the guitar and then Droste’s words “I want you to know, when I look in your eyes…”
Grizzly Bear have a strange power to do something I can’t even identify. I suppose I would say that it can take you out of one place and put you in another. It is displacing and transporting. It does not come from four people, it comes from everywhere. It does not seem possible. It is a million sounds. It is a kind of sensory overload. For four songs they bring a string quartet on stage, which makes each song almost too haunting to stand. They segue from the impossible drums at the end of “I Live With You” into the smooth, funereal piano of Foreground with no pause between. The entire audience claps for Bear, who is sitting with his hands muffling his kit, and then “Foreground” comes out of our clapping before we can recognize what it is.
“In Colorado,” which Grizzly Bear played earlier in the set, Droste asks over lots of cymbal and a choir of background harmonizing that never-ending terrible question, “What now?” And with Grizzly Bear you can’t help but think What now? What are they going to do now? What are they going to play now? What else can they do that will be better than this? What can possibly be better than this? And you would think that there is no answer. Nothing. It has to be nothing! Maybe their power lies in always proving you wrong.