Concert review: MGMT @ Merriweather Post Pavilion
Midnight Sun correspondent Evan Haga saw MGMT at Merriweather Post Pavilion Saturday. Here is his review:
MGMT, a psychedelic quintet whose founders and leaders — vocalist/guitarist Andrew VanWyngarden and keyboardist Ben Goldwasser — are precocious, sometimes brilliant pop craftsmen, offered one of their biggest hits on Saturday night in a way that might be termed an "anti-performance."
To its pre-recorded synthesizer track, the two men sang "Kids" and danced modestly while the rest of the band loitered, nodded along or tooled around on their instruments. (At one point a bra was thrown onstage from the audience and tossed around until VanWyngarden put it on.)
The decision to go karaoke could have been interpreted a couple different ways, depending on what music blogs you read and how much of them you choose to believe. On one level it was an exercise in group catharsis; a way to get the players out from behind their instruments, get loose and enjoy a big falsetto hum-along with the large amphitheater crowd. In a different way it seemed to mock the song and deliver it as an afterthought; a kiss-off to a pop single from a band with much bigger ambitions, perhaps? ...
The crowd was enviable for any working band, especially one with only two full-length albums to its credit: mostly college-aged or slightly older; loyal enough to adopt a neo-hippie-meets-hipster dress code that revolves around a headband or bandanna — a look the band invented but didn’t adhere to. And the loyalty didn't stop there.
Danceable synth-pop may have been MGMT's bread and butter early on, but those singles are actually aberrations at this point. The majority of the band's two Columbia-label LPs consists of formally involved yet impressively tuneful psychedelic rock that seems equally indebted to '60s British Invasion and California pop and to the more recent bands — the Flaming Lips, Spacemen 3 — who've worshiped similar gods. Both of MGMT's offerings are exemplars of songwriting, baroque arrangement and expansive sonics — the sort of front-to-back listens worth a turntable and a nice set of headphones, and an argument for major labels giving promising young people some coin without micromanaging them.
Throughout this roughly 90-minute performance, MGMT focused on convincingly recreating those recorded performances. On film, they've taken advantage of bigger budgets and creative license, releasing music videos that suggest everything from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí to zombie movies, but this was a fairly straight-ahead concert with a sharp set list and some simple yet effective psychedelic projections.
VanWyngarden, Goldwasser, drummer Will Berman, bassist Matthew Asti and guitarist/keyboardist James Richardson mostly stayed put without props or gimmicks — the Lips live this was not. Aside from some guitar heroics courtesy of Richardson, the most Woodstock-looking of the bunch, or a few words of thanks from VanWyngarden, the majority of this gig presented the sort of parlor game the Beatles tribute band the Fab Faux has made a go of: That is, where are those sounds on the record coming from? Ah, that's a synth handling the koto-like timbres on "Congratulations"; oh, that's a real electric sitar on "Someone's Missing."
On more complexly structured songs like the epic "Siberian Breaks"; "It's Working," which resembled sunshine pop as interpreted by Air; or "Flash Delirium," the precision and execution were imposing. "Destrokk," an older song, was a decidedly contemporary-sounding rocker and an overall highlight. Less thrilling were VanWyngarden's vocals, even as the group nailed surf-rock harmonies, and even if certain vocal moments — say, the squeezed tenor the singer fell into on slower numbers like "I Found a Whistle" and "Pieces of What" — were winning.
This material doesn't call for a vocalist of any real power or singularity, but VanWyngarden had trouble projecting and some general pitch problems — most obvious in Prince-falsetto mode, as on "Electric Feel." Not that it mattered much to the fans, who ate the show up in its entirety, far beyond the spare synth-pop moments, and even when it resembled some esoteric meld of the Mamas & the Papas and Spiritualized.
Opening act Devendra Banhart's set worked in an opposing fashion. If you hadn't kept up with him, you might've expected a Norcal freak-folkie looking Jesus-chic and playing through composed acoustic rambles. Instead, Banhart wore very short hair and danced as if on the verge of a bathroom break. His band — a jaunty, taut guitar-rock five-piece — and vocals — a sly croon that suggested Lou Reed with a voice coach — called forth the Lower East Side of mid-'70s Manhattan.