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San Francisco’s Deerhoof are an awkward, nervy band both in sound and in temperament, perhaps a perfect selection for this year’s Meltdown Festival, curated by the ever strange and provocative Yoko Ono. Yet nothing they could come up with could possibly have competed with the discomfort prompted by Verity Susman’s opening support set. Emerging onstage already spewing squawks and guttural outbursts into her saxophone, Susman sported a false moustache, occupying a space somewhere between avant-garde improvisation and performance art.
Her new music appears to be about as far away from the insistent strictures of her former band Electrelane as it’s possible to get, exploiting abrasive sound worlds and uncomfortable dissonances. The accompanying visuals are weirder still, featuring floating breasts and animated muscled Adonises sporting erect, ejaculating saxophones. Clearly there is some investigation of gender roles and stereotypes at play here, and the music is intermittently engaging, particularly when Susman exploits her range of electronic tricks and toys.
Deerhoof appear to be more unhinged and wayward than ever. Greg Saunier has borrowed a skeletal drum kit from a friend of the band – and after hammering it viciously for the first 10 minutes, already seems to be having problems with it. The snare beneath the snare drum has detached, and his cymbal seems to be hanging precariously from its stand as if suspended from a loose thread. The appearance of the kit seems to symbolise the band’s music – taut, rhythmically inventive, energetic and often brilliant, albeit with a lingering sense of chaos that suggests it could all fall apart at any second.
Whilst bassist and singer Satomi Matzuki is a nominal frontperson (frenetically kicking out like a rock ‘n’ roll cheerleader), the band is actually assembled in one line, emphasising that all four musicians play prominent and essential roles. Saunier is a manic driving force at the kit, fearsomely loud with arms flailing in all directions, but also capable of executing complex ideas with disarming accuracy, as well as inserting an abundance of delicate nuances which often threaten to be lost amidst the sheer spectacle of his playing. The twin guitar assault of John Dietrich and Ed Rodriguez has a compelling intricacy, their sound something akin to a meticulously designed lattice. The overall sound of the band is crisp but also wild and explosive, never quite losing touch with their experimental noise roots, even when incorporating the sweetest of melodies (for example Fete D’Adieu’s bittersweet, highly infectious chorus).
Tonight’s performance is not without its problems, its intensity perhaps inevitably muted by the nature of one of London’s major contemporary concert halls. Over-zealous security interfere with the photographers, to the extent that Saunier intervenes to instruct that flash photography in fact *is* acceptable to the group. Later on, they hold back an invited posse of excited audience members rushing to the front to dance during the exuberant encore. Whilst the band sounds like a compelling rough and tumble unit, Matzuki’s cutesy vocals are sometimes a little lost. This hardly ruins the show, which is almost absurdly enjoyable throughout, but when the impact of the group depends so greatly on the tension between sugary melodies and unconventional accompaniment, it is worth highlighting.
The set list includes a liberal sprinkling of the band’s mercilessly concise new album Breakup Song, including an irresistible Flower and a brilliantly executed There’s That Grin. But it also draws back into the band’s now lengthy career for some old favourites, including a typically bright, daft and lively take on Panda Panda Panda (now a good deal more riotous in live performance than the more controlled recorded version on Apple O). There’s also obviously still a lot of love within the band for the refracted rock of Offend Maggie, one of their more underrated albums.
A final exhilarating romp through Basketball Get Your Groove Back (complete with basketballs being bounced between band and audience) encapsulates what is so thrilling and lovable about this band. The music is adventurous, unpredictable and challenging but at the heart of it all is a sense of unbridled joy and fun.