I recently had a conversation comparing bands to food. If Dirty Projectors were edible, I decided they would be Pop Rocks, that explosive candy you melted on your tongue as a kid and open-mouth crackled and sizzled in all its neon glory. It was the edgy thing to do as an elementary schooler, after all. The Brooklyn-based group (now transplanted to an industrial pocket of LA) has that too-cool, effervescent quality that never seems to get tarnished or stop surprising after close to two decades of existence.
Chicago lucked out this week with frontman David Longstreth and company settling on Avondale’s suds-friendly Sleeping Village to camp out for a three-night residency, a welcomed pit stop on the first tour in five years. The 300-person venue—at capacity for the trio of shows—was relatively tight quarters for a band that could have easily packed its dedicated followers into Bottom Lounge, but the top-notch sound system curated by the folks behind The Whistler was no doubt a strong sell. All six musicians in Dirty Projectors shared well, foregoing precious elbow room for intimacy. The stage was a maze of crammed synths and percussion, and its floor looked like a snake cage with all the cords that somehow managed to find their rightful homes. Miraculously there was only one minor collision with a crash symbol.
A poet kicked off the Dirty Projectors set—in addition to local experimental rock group Wei Zhongle, who opened all three nights—with short-burst poems named after the respective bands. The glitchy Wei Zhongle featured a sax player, intricate drums (and an occasional drum trigger) and a song curiously introduced as being about a woman drunk-eating Taco Bell in her car after work.
“Can I get the house lights so you guys don’t look like a silent tribunal?” Longstreth requested on Night One as he gazed across the pit of dark floating heads. As the room lit up, he thrashed into the all-too-relevant “Police Story” off 2007’s Rise Above that ended in a cascade of pristine harmonies by newest additions Felicia Douglass, Maia Friedman and Kristin Slipp. “Understand we’re fighting a war we can’t win / They hate us, we hate them / We can’t win.”
Longstreth later would ask the crowd, “Like this guitar? It’s a new one. I bought it in a trash bag off Craigslist.” It was one of countless guitar changes over the course of the night for him and Friedman as the band created a Dirty Projectors time capsule sampling the full catalog, from this year’s Lamp Lit Prose to 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan. New tunes made their way in like the swirly African guitar and harmonica-tinged “Break-Thru” (do yourself a favor and check out the video with Longstreth in a colorful room surrounded by friendly tropical birds), another harmony-laden kicker “That’s A Lifestyle” and the bouncy “I Found It In U,” which has one of the sweetest call-and-response outros of all time: “I (I) have (have) such a (such a) rad (rad) time with you / Any (any) thing we (thing we) do it’s whatever / That’s why I love you.” Lamp Lit Prose is an extra warm glow of happy, head-boppy tunes after last year’s self-titled gloomy “breakup” LP that wrestled with singer/rhythm guitarist Amber Coffman’s departure from the band and her long-term relationship with Longstreth. In a 2017 New York Times feature, he’s quoted saying it was “the most emotionally taxing thing he has made.”
Fortunately Dirty Projectors never hesitates to shake things up, shuffling through members like they’re a new hand of gin rummy, and the eight studio albums provide an endless pool of material to draw upon. Tonight’s lineup, which also included longtime bass guitarist Nat Baldwin and Mike Daniel Johnson on drums, were tight as ever and any newcomer to the ear candy of Dirty Projectors may be quick to think they were the original installment.
This concert review was written by guest author Jessica Nikolich.