Words by Brendan Sullivan
I’m trying to come up with the perfect word or phrase to describe this magical evening (hmm, maybe magical is the right word… nah) and I keep coming back to the word harmony. It’s a little too obvious, but a little too perfect, too. This performance of Galaxie 500‘s songs featured some beautiful vocal harmonies between Dean & Britta Wareham, and likewise for the stripped-down acoustic opening set by local faves Meeting Of Important People. Not only that, but this venue was perfect for the unassuming and melodic dream pop-rock of Galaxie 500: incredible acoustics, not a bad seat in the house, and a marvelously respectful and appreciative audience. And it didn’t hurt that everything immediately followed a Steelers playoff victory. So yeah, when the universe works to produce such a satisfying arrangement of events and elements, I think harmony is a perfect to sum it up. Read on and relive that harmonious experience with me.
Ok, I hooked you with that Steelers reference, but my story will show you that I am not a devoted fan. I went to PHI in Oakland with some buds to watch the game and was thoroughly entertained and overwhelmed by the Yinzers alternately cursing at the TV and high-fiving each other. You can imagine their shock and indignation when we left with only 5 minutes left in the game, too, because I wanted good seats at the show. When it comes down to it, I guess I just care more about getting a good view of some of my favorite bands than following an emotional rollercoaster of a sporting event that I can just check the score of after it’s done.
And now that I’ve lost you again, I’ll keep going. We got to the venue right at 7:35 so we could find a row of good seats together, and so my friends who didn’t have prebought tickets could guarantee getting in. The rectangular section right in front of the stage was mostly full and without many contiguous seats, so we settled in the second row of the stage-left balcony, towards the middle of the theatre. I think it was a great view, especially with the tiered seats so I didn’t really have to worry about the people in front of me. The crowd was surprisingly sparse, at first, and seemed to be mostly populated with “older” fans, as in people who were probably around and knew Galaxie 500 in their “prime”, unlike people like me, who discovered them almost 20 years later via Dean & Britta‘s duo albums. Folks continually streamed into the theatre and ascended to the upper deck right up until (and a lot during, too) MOIP‘s opening set.
And what an opening set it was! I’ve seen MOIP do some short acoustic sets in the middle of live shows before, but never more than three or four songs. For this half-hourish set, they played 10, and I’m quite impressed with how well the stripped-down versions hold up on their own, since their live songs are usually such rollicking and raucous affairs. That’s just a testament to their songwriting and artistry: the ability and agility to transform a song to match the venue’s vibe without sacrificing any of its essence or charm. I suppose many of their rock ‘n roll tunes are on their Quit Music EP, though, which they completely avoided in this set, instead playing four songs from their self-titled LP, two songs by a prior incarnation of the band (known as The You), two new and unreleased songs, and two covers. Even though they were seated in three chairs at the front and center of the stage, all in a row, it felt like the guys were as animated and joyful as ever, laughing with each other and bouncing around and tapping their feet while Josh’s arm flailed at his acoustic guitar and Matt percussed his tambourine and shakers and clapped along and Aaron faithfully strummed his plugged-in bass. It’s seriously impossible to not smile and dance along in your seat when you watch them play a song like “Single Girl, Married Girl” (a “standard” cover for their live shows) especially when Josh introduces it as a song that the Carter family probably stole from your grandfather down in the hollows. (And notice the audience clapping along for the entire song here; usually a crowd gives up after the first few bars!) Likewise, their cover of “Boys” featuring Matt “Ringo” Miller on vocals was quite fun. But just the same, it’s tough to not get drawn in by the genuinely pretty melody and tender singing in their new song (tentatively-titled) “Our Love”. Even in that one, though, Josh almost cracked up and there’s a bit of loud singing/shouting and strumming. At a fundamental level, MOIP are an awesome garage rock ‘n roll/pop band, but seeing them pull off a set like this at an amazing venue right before an amazing band shows off their versatility and creativity and it should thoroughly impress you, like it did me.
After a short break, two of the concert organizers came onstage to talk about the venue and the cross-promotion with The Warhol Museum and thanked the crowd (which was pretty much completely full by this point) for coming since it encourages them to do more concerts. I support that. Then they introduced Dean & Britta and out they walked, with two other musicians in tow. I expected a drummer, for sure, but the addition of a second guitarist was a little surprising; Galaxie 500 was a trio and managed to get such beautiful and innovative sounds as just a guitar-bass-drum band. No matter, these live versions of their classic songs didn’t sound overwrought or off at all; far from it, in fact: these were perfect reinterpretations of the originals, all led by Dean’s voice and guitar playing. I never would have guessed from his decidedly deliberate speaking voice that his vocals would be so airy and high-pitched, like a cloud floating overhead as you lay on your back in the grass staring up at the sun with your shades on, blissfully stoned and carefree. But they definitely are, and they’re debatably the most recognizable element of Galaxie 500‘s music.
The other big part of their music is the crafting of an atmosphere of sound, built up by the guitar/bass harmonies and the drums that totter between wandering and foundational, peppered with delicious little loud pops of toms and cymbals here and there. It’s amazingly simple but so difficult to replicate, and I commend the quite young-looking drummer Dean & Britta have on tour with them for his ability to recreate Damon Krukowski’s original style. It was really fun to watch him do that; he was definitely the most animated one onstage, since Dean Wareham has to be the most unassuming and nonchalant rock icon out there. His guitar solos are impressively pretty and inventive but tinged with the hard rock of some of his major influences (i.e. The Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman) but he just slowly floats around a small area onstage, moving from the mic to the amplifier and gliding back again, never moving faster than necessary or belying any kind of effort or concentration on his part. It’s really fucking cool, honestly, an indication of how comfortable he is, doing exactly what he wants to be doing and secretly loving it. I wish I could be that calm and confident in everything I do. Check out the long solos during songs like “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” (video below, and a Jonathan Richman cover, in fact, and Dean describes an encounter with Jonathan in the pre-song banter) and “Flowers” to see what I mean. I don’t think this guy has ever even broke a sweat in his life!
Meanwhile, Britta supplies the bass parts originally performed by Naomi Yang and adds some really, really beautiful vocals. Seriously, her voice is outstanding, particularly on their version of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, The Snow Is Falling” and their version of “I’ll Keep It With Mine” (originally written by Bob Dylan for chanteuse Nico) that they recorded for 13 Most Beautiful… Songs For Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests and performed as the final song of their encore at this show. She has a striking stage presence, too: tall and blonde, sometimes kneeling down by the amp while playing bass, and then standing up again, as if to remind us of just how tall she is. She, too, embodies the super-relaxed, so-good-without-even-trying-too-hard style that Dean does, likely cultivated from their years in Luna together. For the most part, though, she stayed fairly quiet during the show, letting Dean introduce each song briefly, or occasionally tell a short anecdote about the song’s genesis, like his humorous description of “Decomposing Trees” and his exploration of a forest on an acid trip, looking at the mud made of leaves which would make more trees and so on. Even for the two songs she sang lead vocals on, Dean introduced them with “Britta’s gonna sing a song now”, and we applauded and she looked almost shy but totally nailed her performance.
What was my theme here? Oh yeah, harmony. I could detail the minutiae of Dean’s solos and Britta’s singing and the second guitarist’s melodica-playing on one song, or the drummer switching to bass during “I’ll Keep It With Mine”, and so on, but the overall impression of the evening is what really matters and what will last in my memory. Will I remember Dean’s funny intros? Probably. Britta’s voice? Certainly. But mostly, I’ll remember that feeling in the room when Dean put down his guitar and the four of them walked slowly offstage, each offering a brief wave to the crowd as we cheered (and a few people stood up), sincerely thanking them for an evening of beautiful music. I’m sure we all knew an encore was inevitable, but it wasn’t like we took it for granted; we earned it with a solid minute of applause, not slowing for even a second. I could have clapped for a few more minutes, even. And capping the evening off with one more Galaxie 500 song and an outstanding Nico cover was just oh so perfect. The venue, the bands, the crowd: we all formed some kind of experiential being, symbiotically feeding each other, resulting in a wonderful, enjoyable, truly harmonious evening. Hyperbolic? Of course. That’s what I do. But right now, this is how strongly I feel about this show, and if I happen to stumble across this review years in the future, I’d like to remind myself of just how great it was. And maybe rub it in the faces of those of you who weren’t there