A sold-out audience sat in anticipation of Atlas Sound's loop- and feedback-based heart songs last night at the Cedar Cultural Center. The solo project of Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, Atlas Sound tends to focus on the softer, most introspective end of dream pop. The show began quietly, but nobody - perhaps not even Bradford himself - could have anticipated the raging, improvisational powerhouse the performance would become.
Dressed in black with only his eyes peeking out of a ski mask, Bradford picked up an acoustic guitar and hypnotically looped delicate arpeggios and vocal effects piece-by-piece, singing over them only after they had been allowed to build into a wash of sound. Eventually, he incorporated bass and electric guitars into the mix, and later moved behind the drum kit, singing and drumming simultaneously.
The set pulled heavily from 2011's “Parallax.” Songs like “Te Amo” were immediately recognizable, but others were rebuilt into new arrangements, one loop at a time. “Walkabout,” from 2009's “Logos,” provided the most heartfelt and intimate moments of the night. It segued into a cover of the Beat Happening's “Youth,” and was followed by a harmonica-infused rendition of “Shelia.”
The show seemed to be nearing its end, but an audience member who shouted a request for “My Sharona” caught Bradford's ear. It initially seemed like a joke: Bradford strummed out the song's bassline and set it to a loop, declaring, “I am a performance artist! I must play what you want to hear.” Then, after getting behind the drum kit to pound out the rhythm and sing a few bars, he called the two opening groups, Frankie Broyles and Carnivores, to the stage, turning the song into a pulsating noise jam.
“Are you here for a folk concert?” Bradford asked, before jumping into the front rows of the audience and demanding that everyone “get up right now and dance!” The crowd immediately rose to its feet. But that apparently wasn't enough, and a short time later he commanded everyone to lift up their chairs. After a brief hesitation, most of the audience were holding their chairs above their heads. It was ten minutes into “My Sharona,” and it seemed like the band's energy was at its absolute peak.
But this was only the beginning of what was growing into a celebration of all things dissonant. “Do you like krautrock?!” Bradford shrieked as the bands took the “My Sharona” groove and thrust it into the sonic territory of Can, Kraftwerk and Faust. Above all the noise and feedback, he contemplated the death of folk music, the passing of time, and the ends of our lives in a frantic, spoken-word beat-poetry style that he himself compared, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, to Patti Smith.
The audience member who originally requested the song was called out and brought onstage. Bradford demanded that the man strip down to his underwear. What initially seemed playful quickly became tense, as Bradford showed no sign that he was joking. Happy to play along, the man removed a few layers of clothing before briefly picking up an acoustic guitar, an action which landed him back in the audience.
In the end, “My Sharona” continued for a full hour. Bradford's stage presence grew frighteningly powerful and bizarre, landing somewhere between Mark E. Smith, Billy Corgan, and Lou Reed. Indeed, the jam was on the level of The Velvet Underground's “Sister Ray” with a post-punk edge (think Pere Ubu, This Heat and Public Image Ltd). When he called for the audience to join him on stage, staff members of the Cedar Cultural Center scrambled to prevent the show from getting further out of control. The house lights were raised in the final minutes, but the looping walls of noise and the bassline of “My Sharona” continued as Bradford slowly counted to ten, ending the show.
For how dreamy, introspective and delicate Atlas Sound's recorded output is, the outburst was largely unexpected. “This is what happens when you make requests,” Bradford iterated several times throughout the jam, usually punctuated by expletives. Some audience members understandably left early, but the majority remained riveted for the entire performance.
Some have criticized Bradford Cox over the years, citing his popular status in indie rock as undeserved and a product of hype. But for the audience present at the Cedar Cultural Center, last night's performance certainly solidified him as an iconic personality in new rock music.