Animal Collective's challenge to Merriweather audience pays off

Experimental indie-rock band Animal Collective performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Oct. 2.
Experimental indie-rock band Animal Collective performs at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Oct. 2. (Sean Pumphrey)

They looked like tonsils, or maybe they were pincers: the tessellated structures that curved to points above the members of Animal Collective. At the mouth of the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion were two rows of cartoonish teeth and gums.

So by the time the experimental band of Baltimore-area natives hit its stride at Tuesday night's show, a question had emerged: Was the imagery meant to suggest that Animal Collective was swallowing us or that we were consuming them? Was the band playing songs they thought we'd want to hear, or were we there to see them do whatever they pleased?

The perspective mattered while watching a band that has seen its star rise without grasping for the mainstream. Animal Collective challenged its audience during its homecoming show at the venue that gave its name to the band's breakout album, playing eight newly released tunes in a 14-song set. And the spectators bought it, allowing the bass-heavy downbeats to guide them through a raucous celebration on the floor and in the seats.

Animal Collective had played four songs before anybody onstage had much to say to the crowd, and even then keyboard/vocalist Avey Tare (nee David Portner) issued a simple greeting before dropping into the churning synth loops of "Honeycomb" (the first song not from new album "Centipede Hz"). Nobody was there to hear them talk, anyway.

There were times when the band struggled to do justice to the sound of its immaculate studio recordings. In "Lion in a Coma," the rhythmic peak of the song lacked the depth of sound that it carries on "Merriweather Post Pavilion." Perhaps that could have been addressed with a sound mix that allowed more mid-range tones to ring out above the bass.

Still, Animal Collective hit its spots with timing and poise on that song and others, and in "Pulleys" and "Brother Sport," the members added some elements that showed they had thought of their live performance with the same level of creativity that they bring to the studio.

"Pulleys," another new one, was particularly impressive in its ability to hold the audience's attention through a dreamy lull that suggested the song might have ended. A scattered instrumental line (it sounded like the plucking of guitar strings just below the tuning pegs) managed to hit a circulating drum beat and drop right back into a triumphant finish.

The song's interlude was where Animal Collective really tested its listeners. The song searched for a groove or hook for what seemed like several minutes, and by the end of it many people had sat down or were looking at their phones. If anybody was bored, that was their problem, but the band drew everybody back in. The end of the song drew one of the most enthusiastic ovations of the evening.

There were other instances where the band took risks in its performance, including the relatively low-energy "Cobwebs" that was the first encore and maybe blew some of the momentum of the band's return to the stage. And "Rosie Oh," the first song of the night, really didn't work out well live. The track doesn't have the strongest of downbeats to anchor a noodling guitar line and for that reason didn't really have the juice to open a show.

On the other hand, "Brother Sport" is something you have to hear live. The intro-tease was so tricky that I wrote the song's name in my notebook, crossed it out and wrote it again. The climax, played with a degree of improvisation among three singers, gave it a great live feel, and the addition of a dance break in the middle was perfectly placed within the show. The classic "Peacebone" to follow it up brought Avey Tare out of his seat for the first time. And the performance was enhanced by great visual work on a projection screens placed behind and on either side of the stage.

An experimental band with Animal Collective's chops should be allowed to do several downbeat songs in a show where people want to dance, or open a set with a string of new stuff. The challenge is making the lows pay off with the highs — balancing the set to make sure that even the most distractible can't help but party down when the hot track arrives. As long as Animal Collective can continue to draw an audience by doing what it wants, they'll be worth seeing every time they come around.

"Rosie Oh"
"Today's Supernatural"
"Wide Eyes"
"Lion in a Coma"
"Moonjock" (I missed this before. Thanks setlist.fm and reader David Dominick)
"New Town Burnout"
"Monkey Riches"
"Brother Sport"

"My Girls"

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