Before we begin, I would like to thank Mr. Harold Zo for his readable and rigorous articles on MGMT last week. We have all benefited from his wisdom, and I am sure that he will contribute work of similarly high calibre in the future, whatever Alexius’ objections might be. I hope that all of you readers were similarly edified by his writing, which can be accessed through this very website.
I will be giving MGMT a rest after this article, though there is word of a new record coming from them in June. I am sure that my audience will not mind a review of that album if I can convince Alexius to write it. Those who have been reading this blog from the beginning will remember my reflection on the stimulating, somewhat controversial show Fun. played at Calvin. Because the context for this concert is different, lacking any political controversy as a discursive spark, I will refrain from pontificating on social issues and instead focus squarely on the event itself. I will, however, be making some passing comparisons to the Fun. show, since it is the only other arena-scale performance I have witnessed at Calvin.
MGMT’s 90-minute set was preceded by a brief dose of almost painfully straight-ahead classic rock courtesy Kuroma. Composed of members of the main attraction’s backing band, the opening act channeled back-to-basics rock with a lyrical emphasis on youth and young adulthood and a no-frills approach to instrumentation. Other than a few synth blasts meant to fill out volume, their set was a strict guitar-drums-bass affair, employing basic chords and a few short solos here and there. It was, because of my position in the audience and the imprecise sound mixing, difficult to hear the lead singer’s vocals, though I could pick up his peculiar singing style. Indeed, the singer’s scratchy high voice was one of the only distinctive elements in the set, which was skillfully performed but mostly unmemorable. Their use of the video screen and lighting mostly consisted of simple flashes and a visual display of their Stars-and-Stripes logo.
Kuroma was in many ways a wonderful compliment and appetizer for MGMT, which, as Mr. Harold Zo wonderfully explained, has a skewed relationship to 1960s psychedelia. The crowd ignited when Messieurs Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser mounted the stage, and they were to keep that energy level all throughout the performance. This was particularly noticeable in the almost absurd amount of crowdsurfing going on. At one point, I counted six or seven people being held aloft and transported, assembly-line-style, toward the security staff at the front, who were kept busy with the raucous floor crowd. Being a more demure and reserved type, I stuck to the bleachers, which were, if uncomfortable, free of the seething, claustrophobic mass on the floor.
MGMT started their set with “Weekend Wars,” and eventually got around to playing a few of their hit singles, including “The Youth” and “Electric Feel.” That song was not part of the set, and thankfully the crowd kept their chanting for it to a minimum. When the hits were playing, the floor was choked with bodies, dancing and celebrating. There was even a scattered remnant holding up actual lighters! This in contrast to the press box I was sitting in, where nine out of the ten closest people to me saw much of the show on their phone screens.
And, truly, it was a sight to behold. Though their lighting setup was nowhere near as polished or intricate as Fun.’s, the band’s trademarked fanged and fearsome visuals were on full display, projected on a huge video screen hanging behind the band. Each song had its own distinct accompanying visuals. These varied considerably, from squiggly, migrating green lines reminiscent of old screen savers to violently distorted videos of jellyfish and freight trains to the sexually suggestive, pulsating phantasms of “Electric Feel.” Particularly striking were the visuals played behind new single “Alien Days,” which can be best described by pointing you to the official lyrics video, which has a similar visual scheme. Windswept tundras dominated “Siberian Breaks,” and helped make that song a special highlight.
Another intriguing visual device (gimmick sounds too harsh) the band employed involved the use of Microsoft Kinect hardware. By setting up a few of these devices near band members, the Kinects recorded and streamed heavily distorted images of the performers on the screen in real time. Often, these streams were integrated into the already-claustrophobic and psychedelic videos, giving the show a sense of visual overload.
The assault-on-the-senses aesthetic extended to the music as well. Every song filled the room with sound, even comparatively docile tracks like “I Found a Whistle.” By the time the band reached that song’s triumphant coda, the sound was almost deafening. MGMT’s songs are rarely sedate even when their tempos are languid, and the show emphasized that this was a band on the offensive. While not exhibiting much in terms of bodily movement, befitting, perhaps, their ironic stance toward pop music performance, the band attacked their songs. Some songs certainly benefitted from this approach. “Alien Days,” “Introspection,” and “Mystery Disease,” all songs from their prospective third album, sounded excellent, and “Time to Pretend” was almost heartbreaking (in a commendable way) for a sensitive young soul like me. As mentioned before, the expansive “Siberian Breaks” suite was a highlight, mostly for the visuals and the impeccably executed transitions.
Unfortunately, MGMT’s technique of sheathing vocals in airy effects tended to make some of the louder songs’ lyrics unintelligible. That wasn’t a concern for me, since I had memorized the songs before the show, but it didn’t help the new songs make a good first impression. My location to the side of the stage probably did not help.
I always find it gratifying to experience a show alongside a devoted and passionate audience, and this was probably the best crowd I’ve ever seen at Calvin in that regard. Respectable quiet was not an option: this was a group that wanted to party, glow-sticks and mind-altering substances included. Estimations from the college staff are that about 3% of the audience, or about 50 to 60 souls, were smoking marijuana. That’s an almost surprisingly low number, though the smell could still be potent where I was standing. Standing in line and looking out over the floor, I could see a healthy portion of the crowd dressed in exotic, summery regalia, with many decked out in gaudy Hawaiian shirts, plastic sunglasses, and zebra-stripe leggings, along with a few pieces of glow-in-the-dark headgear. Sadly, I was rocking nothing more than my standard hat-shirt-jeans ensemble, though I was accompanied by my slightly peppier fiancée, who kept spirits high. This was a fantastic rock concert audience, expressive and more than a little off-kilter in both fashion and behavior.
Unlike Fun., MGMT was not here on an explicit mission. The lack of extensive discussion around a “hot” topic meant that this show had a more relaxed vibe. I would say, however, that the overall showmanship and quality of work on display here outclassed Fun. by a thin margin, perhaps more. Fun. also had a more unabashed and unironic focus on entertainment and populism that MGMT did not exhibit. Yet the presence of a greater ironic distance did not subtract from the show’s enjoyability. I would, tentatively, call this the best of Calvin’s “big name” shows this year. Hopefully, the college can continue this track record and push the envelope even further next year.