Animal Collective: live from Big Sur

There wasn't a couple getting hitched, but Animal Collective's show in Big Sur last week felt more like a hippie wedding than a concert. There was just something celebratory, reverential, and forever memorable about the setting and the intimacy of a performance in a forest, this by a band that the night before had headlined the gigantic Fox Theatre in Oakland.

The performance was part of the (((folkYEAH!))) series, which sets up indie folk, electronic, and metal acts in pristine settings among the trees of Big Sur and Santa Cruz. For this particular event, Animal Collective didn't steal the show like some fans hoped, but the thrill of seeing the band in a little yard on the coast made the experience a positive one to the end.

The 300 fans who had purchased $30 tickets — many before scalpers forced up the prices to $650 on eBay once the show sold out — were gathered under a redwood canopy on the lawn of the Henry Miller Library. The library is housed in a modest cabin tucked into the curves of Highway 1; around it promoters had laid out folding chairs in rows, while festive Christmas lights were tangled like ivy above us. On a raised porch, cooks served black beans and rice for $5, and wine and beer for a few bucks more.

This was no rowdy kegger in the woods. Animal Collective fans were dressed for camping — and possibly psychedelics, as one couple painted their faces in bright primary colors, while another guy sported a piñata chicken head. Bay Area college kids, musicians, and others who'd made the three-hour drive south acted respectfully, tucking their contraband wine bottles into backpacks and flipping through the library's collection of fiction and political books for sale.

By 7 p.m., the fog had dropped from the pointy redwood tops into our grassy clearing. (((folkYEAH!)))'s Britt Govea joked, "We didn't have to spend any money on fog machines!" And when Portland's Grouper took the stage first, a couple of us had a collective shiver. The temperature was getting cooler, sure, but this opening act went so perfectly with the setting, the mood on the lawn turned almost spiritual. And it wasn't just the New Agey NorCal setting vibing us, either.

If you take a physical body count, Grouper is the work of one woman, Liz Harris. But on that low stage, Harris sang with many ghosts — those of her hushed voice and her guitar, both of which echoed with delay and were looped upon one another until her music bloomed into a celestial chorus. She barely had to raise her voice to sing, projecting serene melancholy out into an audience who seemed rightly stunned by her subtle hypnotic prowess. One Animal Collective fan from Napa shook his head during her set, remarking, "I don't think I've ever been to anything this special."

We were all pretty damn giddy, standing in this woodsy oasis for a singular musical experience that amounted to more than a typical set list. I guess that's why I had such high expectations that when Animal Collective played, my mind would be blown. Instead, their show was the only underwhelming part of the evening.

The internationally based trio is a naturally experimental bunch. Their music is a candy-colored meld of animalistic voices, exotic sound effects, and positive-living lyricism mixed into a rich, sugary sonic syrup. The group's latest record, Merriweather Post Pavilion, is its best yet, as the musicians have become a cohesive pop unit without losing their unconventional edge. They still have the bird call bits, and percussion that sounds like rain shaker sticks mixed with beat boxes. But on the band's eighth album, the happy, happy harmonies burst in ecstasy on the choruses, an orgiastic human-electronic release that really elevates Animal Collective's vanguard pop status.

Out among all that nature, though, the group's music was too subdued. Even when they played the tunes off Merriweather ("Also Frightened," "Summertime Clothes," "In the Flowers," "Brother Sport") Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist loosened their tracks into jams, trading precision for length. Along the way they sacrificed the excitement inherent in their music. Without that build, the songs lost their peaks, their swells muted into spacey, atmospheric tangents that occasionally perked up into ravey anthems when the beats turned techno.

Graded on the curve of its environment, Animal Collective's set wasn't a total disappointment for many attendees, though. The group played for a couple of hours to a pretty rapt audience (even the folks gathered around the lone heat lamp on the porch were nodding along to the beat). Plus, like the rest of us, Animal Collective seemed truly excited to be in Big Sur, one member joking, "I kinda wish the fog would come down and cover everyone completely."

These (((folkYEAH!))) gigs are unique for both the artists and their audiences. Govea is known to leave little presents in the rooms of the performers (Animal Collective DJ Turquoise Wisdom said he'd found a bottle of Maker's Mark under his pillow), and most shows end with a DJed afterparty. Last week after the concert, the crew moved up Highway 1 to the Fernwood, whose rustic lodge has hosted many a (((folkYEAH!))) show. And so for a couple more hours, we continued investing in more once-in-a-lifetime memories — like dancing to "Purple Rain," the Prince classic as unlikely to be played in a rural motel restaurant as the whole Animal Collective concert was to experience at a humble abode dedicated to an American novelist.

 
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