Like many white males in their early 30s with slowing metabolisms and dorkish concerns, I never really got what the big fucking deal was about Animal Collective. I was turned onto them years ago by a friend at an old workplace; he had better taste in music than me, but also had a thing for boys who needed fake IDs to get into Avalon. So when he slid some Avey Tare and Panda Bear songs my way, I couldn’t tell if it was in the spirit of “Here, I listen to this” or “Look, they listen to this.”
VIDEO: Animal Collective, "Guy's Eyes" (live at House of Blues)
Moments after listening to them years ago and hours after their show at the House of Blues last night, I still don’t get it. It’s no challenge for me to recall concerts during which I wondered, consciously and constantly, “Do I like this?” (Oh! Franz Ferdinand, what are you doing here? Is that Tortoise you’re with?). But I can’t recall the last concert where I so eagerly and actively spackled my own doubts with the assurance of other people’s enjoyment. It’s not that I wanted to like it, or wanted to hate it, or even wanted to understand Animal Collective. I just wanted to be clear that there was something to understand. Not what was it, but what was it about it?
One thing I learned very quickly, hanging over the balcony, is that kids these days have way, way better weed than I had (or have). “Copious,” was the response when we asked the grinning young couple behind us if the expensive odor surrounding us was their work. These two were up from Florida, having just started a circum-country trip, and had scored the last two tickets at the window. This, they said, was huge. Within the hour, they and 20 or so others behind me would be losing their minds and flip-flops in dizzy fits of twirling and trancey swaying, lost in a clamor of writhing white noise and bass swells that stuttered like a corrupt version of thunder.
There’s no point in delaying this any longer, so I’ll just come out and say it: Animal Collective are the next logical iteration of the jam band. Yes. Yes they are. Not arguing. Telling. If this upsets you as an out-and-proud hip person, or if you’re right now clutching your seashell necklace in horror at the thought, I know: this isn’t easy for me, either. But I know what I saw.
Mind you, there are differences aplenty: whereas jam bands tend to be technically indulgent, Animal Collective is more technologically indulgent — the stage glowed with the touchpad triggers of over a half-dozen samplers. And where the jam band protocol for losing control usually means straying as far as possible from one’s unquestionably totally awesome chops, Animal Collective’s strategy seems simpler: lose control. And whereas jam bands construct their sets to wind and wend in and out of favorites in a druggy, non-committal blur, Animal Collective’s montage is more like a system of melodies clawing to the surface from under brutal riptides of delay and distortion. They show up all scratched and dirty, with whole parts missing, while Avey Tare and Panda Bear yowl harmonies that soar and crash into an ever-present swirl of leftover noise (the latter even moaned a sort-of faithful stretch of Ravel’s Bolero). It could be the only direct corollary is the twirling and the high-grade doob.
Still, as inscrutable as it often was, Animal Collective puts on a captivating show. Their four tables (cluttered with effects, mixers, samplers, and implements for whacking scattered drums), draped in white fabric, lit up with frenetic rainbows as a massive white orb overhead caught spiraling projections. As a three piece, each of them tended to their stations (Geologist with his now iconic forehead-mounted flashlight), occasionally hopping around or arcing back to hit a particularly strident “Whoooooaa-oh-oh.” Animal Collective have the unique ability to indulge in ambience for its potential, rather than rely on it as interlude. Songs like “Guy’s Eyes” and “Fireworks” pulled themselves into 10-minute sprawls of uncertain ecstasy, and when a pulse — distant and deep — crept up within the noise, the entire audience bounced their wish into fulfillment: bodies started getting passed around, plumes of smoke pushed into the projection beams, little pockets of the most passive moshing ever recorded broke out, and Geologist rewarded everyone with a beat you could hear.
An hour and a half had gone by before I realized an hour and a half had gone by — so I can only assume, despite a glaring absence of lingering melodies, moving moments, or striking memories (I’m telling you there was a lot of smoke) that I do indeed enjoy this band. But the Animal Collective experience seems far less reliant on understanding entirely than it is on forgetting entirely — and if that’s not the stamp of a jam band, I’m not sure what is.