Danielson | 09.22.06

The dynamic arrangements and tempo shifts in Smith's highly original compositions command your attention, while the soft female background vocals, often in a call-and-response manner, add a delightful contrast to Smith's rather theatrical, formula-shattering lead vocals.

 

live_danielson 

w/David Bazan
Pygmalion Festival
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, Urbana, Ill.

It's not always easy being a Danielson fan. There's the somewhat confusing branding (is it still the Danielson Famile? And who's Brother Danielson? And isn't the real family name Smith?), the spiritual underpinnings, and the complexities of the music itself, which I've seen people scratch their heads over many times. Oh yes, and lead singer/songwriter Daniel Smith's voice, the sort of singular element that can instantly draw a line between adventurous listeners and those with more conservative predilections. But one thing's for sure: if you've heard Danielson to any extent, you know they sound like virtually no one else on Earth. And for many of us, the Clarksboro, N.J., ensemble have given birth to some utterly riveting, revolutionary pop music. So any chance to see them live is a rare treat.

Although the last couple of Danielson recordings featured appearances by everyone in the family—and their most recent CD, Ships, even includes Sufjan Stevens and members of Deerhoof among its cast of characters—the touring band that stopped in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., to kick off that city's Pygmalion Festival was a stripped-down entity. Smith, of course, was front and center on guitar, aided by sister Megan (xylophone and vocals), wife Elin (vocals), brother David (drums), longtime friend Chris Palladino (keyboards), and Jedidiah Slaboda (bass). Dressed in light blue service uniforms that were vaguely nautical (inspired by the color scheme and design of the newest album), the Danielson clan cheerfully greeted the attentive Krannert Center crowd and launched right into several numbers from Ships, including the intricately structured "Cast It at the Setting Sail" and the throbbing, dramatic "Kids Pushing Kids." "Bloodbook on the Half Shell," with its shivery descending chord progression and strange whistled part near the end, was a stellar highlight.

The dynamic arrangements and tempo shifts in Smith's highly original compositions command your attention, while the soft female background vocals, often in a call-and-response manner, add a delightful contrast to Smith's rather theatrical, formula-shattering lead vocals. I'm not sure there's another still-active male singer who has a higher natural falsetto than Daniel Smith. The signature tune on Ships is "Did I Step On Your Trumpet," one of several songs where Smith actively solicited audience involvement. He asked if anyone had ever stepped on another person's trumpet, for which an obliging chap upfront told a "this one time…in band class" story that pleased Smith immensely. He proceeded to explain that the song's title was meant to be metaphorical, that if you've ever done someone wrong or hurt their feelings, you simply say, "Did I step on your trumpet?" and then apologize. If only things were that simple! The tune itself is a marvel of songwriting ingenuity, with spine-tingling acoustic strumming by Smith and perfect harmony vocals by the ladies. In the event that there's ever a "Best of Danielson" CD, this catchy and original tune is a must for inclusion.

For the real Danielson devotee, there were a couple of big surprises. "Sing to the Singer," a communal number from their Steve Albini–produced Fetch the Compass Kids, was a welcome departure from the newer songs, delivered with charm and vulnerability. Even more unexpected was "Sold! To the Nice Rich Man," one of Smith's most Dylan-like tunes, played hypnotically on his six-string. He gamely tried to get the audience to sing along on the somewhat elliptical chorus-the fact that a fair number did was evidence of both Smith's dedicated inclusionary aesthetic and the receptiveness of the audience to this offbeat music. There were clap-alongs, too—numerous Danielson songs employ handclaps as a rhythmic device, and one of them provided the biggest surprise of the evening. For "Flesh Thang," an odd tune from the unabashed masterpiece Tell Another Joke at the Chopping Block, Smith worked overtime to get the crowd to sing along on the chorus, while the rapid clapping parts were cued by the girls, quite successfully. It was a delightfully weird moment that made at least a few of us positively giddy.

But it's likely that most people were more comfortable with the newer songs like "Two Sitting Ducks," (its repeated lyric "I'm gonna make it my priority" was gripping), "Time That Bald Sexton," and "Five Stars and Two Thumbs Up," which served as an appropriate "thank you" to both the Danielson audience and the cosmos for letting these highly inventive musicians sail their uncharted creative waters.

Opening the show was Seattle singer/songwriter David Bazan (best known as Pedro the Lion), who delivered a personable 40-minute set with a remarkably clear enunciation that showed off the venue's superior acoustics-you could understand almost every lyric. Bazan quickly established an intimate rapport with the audience, repeatedly asking (to comical effect), "Are there any questions at this point?" "Why are you so good?" one person shouted back. It was a sweet and funny moment at a gig that, although on the short side, left many of us pondering that very question about the artists we cherish.

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