John Carpenter Channeled the Propaganda of They Live

John Carpenter: Anthology Tour at The Warfield, November 4, 2017

“The opening theme to John Carpenter‘s Halloween is what the kids might refer to as “a banger.”
This was a realization I had while pressed against a subwoofer to the left of The Warfield’s stage. Meanwhile, Carpenter and his band were performing the classic horror film’s opening track. A pair of punk-ish, blonde, 20-somethings strained to see the performance past me, so I gave them my spot. Once they had a clear view of the show, they began rhythmically head-banging and dancing to the ominous track’s kick drum.
Yes, the Halloween theme has a kick drum. Rather underrepresented when heard during a viewing of the film, its beat was heavy and driving when pounded out on stage. Add in a prominent, rapidly tapping hi-hat, now a staple of the trap music genre, along with a formerly-kitschy-but-now-retro-cool lead synth-line, and you have an accessible, crowd-friendly dance number.
Of course, the Halloween theme’s reception may be due to its immediate recognition. While his music certainly has a distinctive style, differentiating the themes to Carpenter’s various works is not easy unless you’re a cult film fanatic.
But even if the last time you heard “Pork Chop Express” — the theme to Big Trouble in Little China — it was marred by the hiss of a VHS tape’s audio farting from an old console TV speaker, hearing these tracks performed live transforms them into something greater. Though Carpenter and his band stayed faithful to their original recordings, hearing them with a level of organic imperfection in a spacious venue creates a whole new experience. Plucking them from the context of movie-watching forces you to pay a bit more attention to composition and nuance. 
Carpenter kept things simple, with little showboating. Despite being front and center, and under a bright light that gave his mane of white hair an ethereal look, aside from some occasional flourishes while tapping keys, he directed the audience’s attention toward his band as he introduced them or to his son Cody as he played lead synths, and credited the original composers for a couple of songs. Carpenter speaks with a deep, commanding timbre that carried over the crowd, and while straight-faced much of the show, he let the odd smirk escape, and threw up the devil’s horns a couple times.

Gimmickry and props were pretty much nonexistent, save for when the band began playing the theme to They Live, and each member smoothly donned a pair of black sunglasses, drawing laughs and cheers from the crowd. And Carpenter might have popped an extra piece of chewing gum. The band’s attire was understated, with a “blue collar symphony” aesthetic of black T-shirts and black denim.
While super-cuts of each film’s most memorable, gory or intense scenes (as well as Jeff Bridges’ bare ass in Starman) were projected behind the band onto a five-panel backdrop, some Rothko-ish colored gradients appeared when Carpenter dug into material from his Lost Themes album series. Unsurprisingly, these tracks were only recognized by the most die-hards, and many folks took these as opportunities to grab another drink or some merchandise.
The audience was diverse. I spotted metal-heads wearing battle vests, members of local synthwave bands — shout-out to Vector Hold — organizers for local punk events, and industrial music DJs. 
However, I left feeling somewhat disoriented. I couldn’t tell if I’d been at The Warfield for 45 minutes or two-and-a-half hours. Carpenter performed about 17 tracks of varying lengths, most accompanied by film clips. The progression, in terms of energy and pacing, was unconventional, and frantic visual action sometimes accompabied slower-paced themes. For example, the theme to They Live is a bluesy, plodding jam, but it was paired with fist fights, explosions, and aliens being blasted with shotguns. 
If you ever have the chance to see Carpenter live, make sure to bring plenty of cash for the well-stocked merch booth. CONSUME.


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