There’s really no entity that compares to the genius of Phil Elverum. He’s like a mythical creature or enlightened being from another planet. He’s been actively making music and art for nearly fifteen years under a variety of monikers, with common threads and motifs connecting each project to the next. His soft, cooing voice sounds bashful but the words they convey are anything but; together they form a cohesive aesthetic whether the tunes are performed as a black metal band or as stripped down acoustic melodies. I’ve been amazed and inspired by his work for most of my adult life, finally getting to see him play live (in a glorious cathedral no less!) during Northside fest in the summer of 2011.
I saw him again a few months later at le poisson rouge. The opener both times was Nicholas Krgovich, who put out a 7″ on Phil’s record label P.W. Elverum & Sun. This is significant because he also accompanied Phil, playing keys and synths and adding backing vocals. The set for both shows spanned a lot of Mount Eerie material (and there really is so, so much of it) but from show to show was pretty similar. They were both moving in their own way, although far from my dream set, or what I’d imagined a Mount Eerie set might be like after countless repeated listens to their infamous triple LP recorded live in Copenhagen.
For Saturday night’s show, Brooklyn-based electronic indie pop outfit La Big Vic warmed up the crowd with bouncy set, each beat measured against swirling synths and vocals. Their smartly crafted dream pop is sort of like waking up from a dream you just had where you were lying on the beach sunbathing but the sky was all shifting neon colors instead of the standard blue. The majority of the crowd paid rapt attention to the attractive trio, with Toshio Masuda casually looping guitars, Emilie Friedllander bowing a violin or cooing into the microphone, and Peter Pearson manning the keys.
During the set, Phil Elverum and his bandmates could be seen milling about the crowd – putting finishing touches on set-up, selling records, and chit-chatting with fans. This highlights one of the best aspects of Elverum’s live performances and work in general; despite the emotional depth to his work and its esoteric facets, he is really just normal guy. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, preferring to interact with the crowd, making jokes at his own expense. The band had a little trouble with initial set-up, blowing two amps and lacking connections for some of the instruments, during which Phil took it upon himself to introduce the new material as well as his four touring bandmates, all on loan from their various bands and side-projects.
I was really excited to see him play with a fuller band, especially because the additional vocals sounded particularly heartbreaking. There was also a fake campfire on stage, which added a bit of kitsch but also a bit of setting, and setting is what the new Mount Eerie material is all about. In his introductory speech, he’d mentioned that the evening’s setlist was composed of songs taken from each of his two newest records, Clear Moon and Ocean Roar.
These albums were recorded simultaneously in Elverum’s new studio, The Unknown, while he took a year off from touring, and he divided the material into separate records afterward. He has stated that the records are truly meditations on his hometown in Washington state and what it meant for him to be in that one place, day after day, walking from his home to his recording studio and back and then spending quiet evenings reading about Anacortes history. They represent two sides of the same coin; Clear Moon is as succinct and glistening as its name might suggest, in exactly the same way that Ocean Roar is murky and embattled, its dense layers rolling over tumultuously over and over one another. In a live setting, the juxtaposition of the material highlighted the breadth and beauty of the sonic divide. Moving from quieter, dreamier movements into towering walls of drone, Elverum knitted these conjoined twins back together to stunning affect.
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