Baltimore City Paper

Transmodern Festival, Day Three: There's nothing wrong with imagining a world in which Pearl Jam does not exist

Human foosball

Extremely modest success coupled with borderline constant web hype has stirred the pot for the inevitable Dan Deacon backlash, which finds its latest incarnations in the armchair

fired at him from the


. Deacon has entered that post-honeymoon underground phase where anything he does is as likely to inspire glossy-eyed adoration as reactionary blather. Given that the man completed an early national solo tour by Greyhound bus, chances are he's weathered worse.

The sixth annual Transmodern Festival more than handled the expansive crowd that Deacon's Saturday night headlining set drew to the event. Deacon unveiled the big band currently touring and performing his new


for the first time to his adopted home base, and it provided a frothy capstone to a wonderfully multimedia evening. Transmodern's move to the H&H Building turns out to be a modest coup for the festival, bringing together an already existing nexus of underground arts spaces and providing festival goers a number of viewing and interactive options throughout the space, spreading foot traffic across multiple floors. Get a name tag from Jamie Gaughran-Perez before entering the Whole Gallery. Take a squat on a candy-filled commode to digest the video art. Marvel at Sarada Conaway and Jackie Milad's Transmodern "Make-Over" project, which recreates the antiseptic glamor of a fashion photography shoot in the service of truly fabulous re-envisioning of a festivalgoer's personal style. Join what appears to be an impromptu knitting session, already in progress. Seriously dig on David Moré's inventive, impressive sound pieces in Gallery Four. The level of constant engagement at Transmodern's home base this year was one of its many charms. If one thing wasn't doing something for you, just wander the building. On some floor--or even in the stairwell--something or somebody is bound to grab the eyes.

Arguably nothing did just that with such a mischievous level of infectious glee as Michael Benevento's life-size foosball table on the fifth floor. "Human foosball" is something you might have come across as a kid, or if you've ever had to suffer through professional "team building" exercises, but Benevento's version--an ebulliently painted playing field with six rods spanning it, to which each team's members were tethered: one goalkeeper, two strikers, three midfielders--freed the idea from any ulterior motive save fun spectacle. The balls were oversized, soft versions of a basketball and a baseball. An ambient noise-ish soundtrack played during the action. And, at least for part of the evening, Thank You's Jeffrey McGrath provided the deadpan color commentary.

It made for a great interactive piece to watch for any amount of time--who knew young adults laughing and kicking at each other was so entertaining? Perhaps the best image of the whole evening was the wide smile and look on Benevento's own face every time people were playing the game.

At Floristree's top floor performances continued throughout the night. Ric Royer and occasional

City Paper

contributor Rahne Alexander, both fabulously attired without needing an transmodern makeover, served as emcees for the evening, introducing the music acts (that's an


cover of George Michael's "Father Figure" you do, local singer/songwriter


) separated by a few film installations, such as the abstracted, rasterized animations of


Everything led up to the headlining triple bill of Teeth Mountain, Future Islands, and Dan Deacon, but some lengthy set changes curtailed some sets. This was by far the shortest drum-circle drone party from Teeth Mountain I've ever seen, followed by a sweet but terse set from Future Islands. This synthy outfit doesn't do much for me on recordings--it feels winsomely brittle and preciously twee--but live the band puts a lithe, bassy bottom behind its hook-filled, snappy melodies and, really now, few things in underground electro are quite a fun as watching frontman Sam Herring, whose DIY suavity comes across like the


-era Bryan Ferry for the Paper Rad generation.

Deacon plus his ensemble--I only counted 11 people in the band, but being unwilling to fight upstream through the throng to gain an up close and personal vantage point, my observations were limited (and the stage appeared to be lined with many non-performing people milling about)--delivered with a set that bordered on the tremendous. And it had to be, given the epic set change between Future Islands. A half hour?



than a half hour? It felt momentum killing, with Deacon himself calibrating the large ensemble's mix from his position on the floor in front of the stage, which became equal parts orchestra pit and conductor's stand. He called out for the players to sound off--Drums. Bass drums. Bass. Saxophone. Keyboards. Etc.--as he tweaked the mix, with a few gear-to-effects-to-amp-to-PA connections not entirely working as planned. When an anxious voice inquires over the house music if a JBL-something-or-other is connected to the something-something via the whatchamacallit cable, you get the sinking feeling that everything is not moving as smoothly as desired.

If the setup is painstaking, it's only because Deacon has a very clear idea what he's looking for sonically from this big-band setup. The new album does feature a richer and plusher version of Deacon's electronic pop joy; live it sounds positively resplendent, as the full band's articulation of the album amplifies the ambition behind it. Three--more?--percussionists provide the album's shifting beats, those irregularly patterned rhythms that abruptly shift gears into ecstatic tempos or modulating baseline pulse. Synthesizers, keyboards, bass guitar, and Deacon's own electronics dive in and swim around these dynamic arrangements, and the whole percolating groove is surprisingly well mixed in the warehouse space; at times, the ears detect higher frequency sounds and effects floating behind and above the central melodies, but that could just as well be my 39-year-old ears reacting to 23 years of live-music volume abuse.

Down front, Deacon


conducting this unruly beast--if you've ever seen


lead one of his guitar symphonies with energetic gesticulations, it's a tad like that. It wasn't perfect--two power outages inside the first 15 minutes totally stalled the band's initial thrust, and no small amount of people headed for the doors after the second instance. Such dissenters, though, opened up some much needed elbow room on the floor.

The set lasted approximately an hour, and to the hopping up and down, crowd-surfing, arms-raised enthusiasts who stayed behind, it certainly looked like no interminable set change or electrical snafus were going to spoil their party. Plus, once the band got rolling and was able to continue uninterrupted by technical difficulties, it was quite grand, as Deacon's music--for all its seemingly ADD-addled arrangements, hyper-drive vocals, out-of-pocket electronic noises, childlike sing-song melodies, etc.--aims primarily for ineffable euphoria. That he's trying to do this via this strange mish-mash of electro-acoustic wizardry and unabashed pop hooks is what makes the music so beguiling: it's smart without being egg-headedly intellectual and accessible without being lowest common denominator, which isn't an easy needle to thread at all.

That Deacon can still deliver some of the better extemporaneous onstage banter these days remains his secret weapon. He was sharp enough to be his own best heckler by the time they finished setting up and were ready to play, ribbing himself with something about having to sit through "that" only to listen to some guy ramble on. He then wanted to get everybody in the proverbial zone, asking everybody to raise their hands, put them down the person's head in front of them, and then stare at the hammock--"Don't look at me, I look the same as I do on the internet"--hanging from Floristree's ceiling. What followed was some quasi-apocalyptic musing involving a Footlocker store and Reeboks. He topped that scream-of-consciousness tangent when, later in the set, he asked the audience to imagine a world in which Pearl Jam does not exist because, of course, there's nothing wrong with imaging a world in which Pearl Jam did not exist. Or something like that. Deacon talking was actually the most difficult part of the mix to hear clearly. But the best thing seen on this entire night were the more than a few young men of Deaconesque stature totally rocking unironic goofy T-shirts, beards, over-sized glasses, and large-billed baseball caps. It's about time portly young male cartoon fans had their own Pat Benatar to dictate fashion trends.