Over The Weekend: Dan Deacon at the Modern

Dan Deacon & Ensemble

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
April 18, 2009

Better than: having to make the tough decisions, like: Do I spend the night looking at paintings, or go out to a show? Do I flip out dancing with my white T-shirt pulled over my head, or with my fedora on? Last night, you could do both.

More photos in our slideshow here.

Saturday night, for the last act of an all-around great Modern 'til Midnight event in Fort Worth,  Dan Deacon took to a low platform in front of the stage, right down among the audience, and asked everyone to raise their hands. Now slowly lower them, til they're on the head of the person in front of you. We all managed this no problem. He asked whoever was massaging him to stop, and when they didn't, he had to ask a few more times.

Then he asked everyone to imagine a time we felt truly guilty. He said this a few times, each one drawing shouted jokes from the crowd. "No, I'm serious. Think of something you're just totally ashamed of." More shouts.

"Fuck this, let's just do the show," he said, launching into "Of the Mountains" off his new album.

Dan Deacon's live shows are known for being really participatory -- you don't just watch a Dan Deacon show, you join in.

The Baltimore-based electronic artist bends his live audience, playing them like an instrument. It's easy to find stories about totally mind-blowing Deacon shows, when the drums, keyboards and high-pitched vocal loops build and the dance-offs and footraces leave everyone so exhausted that the whole room just melts together.

At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

Deacon's intentions were clear -- every few songs say something like, "OK, now we're getting there," as if improvising a course to somewhere he knew well.

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After a few of the loudest folks refused to play along at first, Deacon played three or four songs from his platform in front of the stage, then had more success with a few other tricks with the crowd. First, he managed to get half the crowd wandering around the Modern's sculpture garden during one song, bumping into one another with their eyes closed.

Another song or two, and he decided we were ready for footraces to the far end of the lawn and back, two at a time at first. More people joined in, down and back, kicking up grass and colliding while he played.

There was a human tunnel into the museum (two people join hands and form an arch, which two more people walk under before forming another arch beside them, which becomes a tunnel). The way Deacon described it, the tunnel would continue till everyone was inside, and he and the ensemble were the only ones left in the garden -- but that never quite happened. People trickled back out from the museum almost instantly, and then there were the folks at tables in the back who never moved in the first place, not about to stand up and leave their friends and beers behind.

Even for the folks less keen on spastic gyrations or running, hearing Deacon layer bent and distorted sounds was something special, particularly in the awesome setting afforded by the Modern. Deacon drew heavily from his new album Bromst, which includes some much mellower stuff than he'd recorded before -- but the show never seemed to drag.

The ensemble was another new piece to his show. Deacon toured solo in the past, but this time he's on the road with a 10-person setup with bass, guitar, clarinet and a handful of drummers and keyboardists. Dressed in white jumpsuits covered with colorful umbrellas and other flair, they filled the stage behind Deacon like worker bees. Before, the audience supplied most of the spectacle at a Deacon show; with the ensemble this time, the music-making came with a visual presence too.

Even if Deacon knew where he wanted to take us by the end of the night -- that rare moment of flow that wraps up the entire room -- he never quite got there. It was a great show and a lot of fun, but not not the transformative experience it might've been if the entire crowd was more willing to play along.

A "Silence Like the Wind" singalong near the end of the show nearly got it done, though. With a green skull onstage behind him flickering in a strobe, and a light above his head bathing the crowd in colors, Deacon got us all singing and waving hands together. It was a simple thing, given the elaborate stunts that came earlier, but still one of the night's best moments. The song built and built, with Deacon adding another instrument to the mix, or another layer of distortion on his vocals, as we all repeated the lines over and over.

At midnight, though, the police in the garden turned up to send everyone home. "Is it cool if we play just one more?" Deacon asked. We all shouted -- things were just starting to get really good.

"OK, no, it's not cool," Deacon relayed back to us, so that was it.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I'm not the world's biggest electronica enthusiast, but with the Modern as a backdrop, the whole experience was hard to beat. The scene with Fight Bite's Leanne Macomber at the mic outside, with the sun setting and tall clouds behind her, is one that'll stick with me. With Teeth Mountain and Future Island also playing, and the visually striking, locally produced film St. Nick screened inside, it was a great way to see the Modern.

Random Note: Before I saw Dan Deacon play, I'd never heard the words, "I'm not getting enough Blind Melon in the front monitor," in a sound check before.

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