I heard The Very Best play at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion earlier this month. The polyglot party-starters charged through their set, but their energy was lost on most attendees. In the end, what good is exuberance if it’s not reciprocated?
As aesthetically and technically pleasing as the Pavilion might be, it is not necessarily ideal for a performance. Not only do outdoor venues pose challenges of space and distance for an artist, but when they play for free in a place like Millennium Park they are no longer the star attraction. They become a curiosity. It’s unlikely that many people came to see The Very Best play that evening. They were looking for a nice place to picnic.
But something remarkable happened: The Books overcame the obstacles that playing outdoors entails.
The New Gay once described opener Via Tania as “a combination of St. Vincent and a fairy.” Similarly, I expected a set of off-kilter pop tunes. With her sparkly pink dress and mop of cropped curls, Tania even looked like Annie Clark. Then she opened her mouth. The material was the stuff of thirty-something dinner parties, her delivery somewhere between Norah Jones and Regina Spektor. She didn’t hit her stride until the very end with a raucous number titled “Perfect Night”. Until then, she was lost in her own seductiveness.
The Books haven’t released an album in nearly five years. Their fanbase has only continued to bloom in that time, as a very warm reception evidenced once the NYC sound collage kingpins took the stage. Clearly humbled, they began with a track from their forthcoming LP, Group Autogenics, whose overall meditative feel, paired with clips of large floating heads projected onto a large screen behind them, complimented the balmy urban oasis setting nicely and set the tone for the rest of the set.
The tempo built up from there and audience excitement increased as the duo (now trio, featuring a new violinist/multi-instrumentalist) played classic cuts such as “That Right Ain’t Shit” and “Take Time,” the latter being particularly noteworthy for the third member’s contribution to the vocal harmonies.
The most surprising aspect of The Books’ live performances is the smoothness of transitions. As previously mentioned, when the group plays they incorporate found footage. The layering of obscure sounds with these images and live cuts, the changes among these disparate elements is quite a feat. They come together into something continuous, something, for lack of a better term, greater than the sum of its parts. For example, “Cold Freezin’ Night” consists almost entirely of explicit samples taken from tapes found in the Talk Boy radios featured in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. On paper, it shouldn’t work, but live the results are oddly captivating and darkly humorous.
The same goes for the changes between the compositions. Even when guitarist Nick Zammuto or cellist Paul de Long paused briefly to chat with the audience, they managed to be personable and engaging without detracting from the performance itself.
The rest of the set, a thoughtful combination of old and new material, followed suit, with the group using the excellent acoustics and the venue’s space to truly make an impact, unlike many bands who would falter in such intimidating environments.
In case you haven’t figured this out by now, Books shows are generally known as quiet affairs. That’s what this was for the most part. The audience listened attentively, save for the occasional cheer from a rowdy, stoned hipster.
And then the dancing began.
As I sat quietly, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a mass of people converging toward the back of the Pavilion. Tattooed girls and boys skinnier than I’ll ever be moved their bodies wildly to the beat, forming human cyclones, skipping up and down the aisles, turning “Smells Like Content” and a cover of Nick Drake’s “Cello Song” into something of a ravey hoe-down. At this point, I had to put away my camera and notepad and get into it. The spontaneity of the whole scenario was thoroughly enjoyable. If you needed any proof that the audience came specifically hear this band, there you go.
Yes, the Millennium Park audience was there to see the band playing for once. That’s almost as strange as the dancing itself.