By DAVID CORCORAN
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
April 16, 2012
Great American Music Hall
Better than: Standing planted in one spot for two hours doing almost anything else.
Things You Probably Didn't Learn at Last Night's GY!BE Show That You Were Thinking Maybe You Would
There were a few things you knew for sure when you walked into last night's sold-out Godspeed You! Black Emperor show at Great American Music Hall, the first of a five-night mini-S.F. residency to keep the group busy between consecutive weekend appearances at Coachella. You knew, for example, that there would be repeated patterns of tension and relaxation. You knew you'd hear some album pieces and some unreleased material, and that you'd probably be able to follow most of the set. You knew that at some point after the opener, somebody would talk about "complex layering" in a dopey but inoffensive way, and you'd shrug it off before idly considering just how many goddamn layers they'd be layering up. You definitely knew that you weren't the only one who had listened to more Godspeed in the last week than in the last nine years put together, ever since sleeping to F♯ A♯ ∞ had made the bedroom environment too intense for regular overnight guests and the whole catalog got shelved.
There were also things you mistakenly thought you would soon know. This is a list of those things.
Anything General About Godspeed Fans
The Godspeed listening experience tends towards privacy, silence, and long periods of oscillating focus and daze, and the audience experience at Great American last night was no different. The solitary field down on the floor was broken only occasionally by pockets of essential intimacy -- couples with hands locked or heads leaned or bodies squished back to front in that sort of schoolyard straddle-stance functional watching position -- and for the most part, the crowd did not respond to the show as a group. Sure, we all cheered together during the breaks, but there were large stretches of time where it didn't seem at all odd that the guy to your right was whiplashing and stomping his feet while the girl on your left was zoned out in a barely visible circular sway, because you didn't really notice either of them.
Anything Specific About Godspeed Members
You did not find subtle flashes of broken character. You did not find connection, validation, or acknowledgement from the musicians you scanned relentlessly with awed eyes. You even felt a little bad for the dude who yelled "Thank you, Godspeed!" at the end of "Monheim" cause you thought maybe somebody on stage would crack a little something, but it was the crowd's peppered echoes that had to buoy the guy.
They play with the poise of a professional chamber group, no getting around it. And while a typical chamber group's prepared encore and the ritualistic little curtain call/applause handshake that invites it is an overwrought but expected (and welcomed) departure from the one-way concert transmission, Godspeed doesn't play in that sandbox. As set closer "The Sad Mafioso..." wound down, band members exited stage one by one until only a looping guitar remained. A tech came up and pulled the plug, and that was it.
Aidan Girt twice gestured for his monitors to be turned up near the beginning of the show while he manned the rear percussion station -- that was something, I guess.
What Sounds You're Hearing
You're still incapable of separating instrument feedback loop from prepared tape loop, and this tight synthesis of live and pre-recorded sounds is something the band clearly works carefully to preserve. The stage floor was a Mad Max hopscotch sprawl of effects boxes and pedal boards, so more probably came from processing instruments than you think, but the sounds matched the album recordings to an astonishing degree. Top mystery here is still how Sophie's violin can sound more like a Theremin than a Theremin itself.
Where You Should Be Landing, Thematically, With All This
This isn't like the time you threw on Rage Against the Machine to bop around for old time's sake and suddenly realized that you "got" civil rights. Any progress made tonight in unwrapping Godspeed's music will have come from the absurdly well done video projection by band member Karl Lemieux. Highlights included live single-frame film destruction via flame, and a simultaneous three-projector mix that gave us layered images of desolate urban landscapes, distressed filmstrips, typewriter dossiers, mug shots, apocalyptic woodcuts, oil refineries, stock tickers, and one effect that looked like you were flying a prop plane through a flock of geese.
You'll still be swimming upstream in your search for lucidity and meaning in this music even after 10,000 lumens and 240 decibel-hours of reinforcement. My advice: take it as it comes, use your ears, and privilege what you want. There's no such thing as failing the target of an evocation.