Legendary Pink Dots
The Social, Orlando, FL November 2, 2008
by Matthew Moyer
This night was an awfully long time coming for me. Billed as "An Evening With the Legendary Pink Dots," and thankfully dispensing with an opening act (really, who can keep up), this is not a spurious greatest hits museum piece. This is a statement of intent, a state of the union, a summation of Legendary Pink Dots 2008 as a still vibrant creative force not subject to the whims of some fickle Goth nostalgia.
Speaking of the "G" word, the Legendary Pink Dots, to my mind, always got unfairly pegged with that ebon brush. To this correspondent, the Dots always had wayyyyyy more in common with White Album Beatles, really good weird kraut rock like Amon Duul and Can, and jazz musicians with their insatiable urges to continually move forward, continually evolve, and continually reinterpret their material (with that unspoken confidence that their audience is hip to the score and will follow along.)
So it is that the Dots begin the night, hell, devote over half their set, with the skeletal electronic pulses and hums and polymer nursery rhymes that form the heart of their new Plutonium Blonde album. And the Kid-A meets Current 93 minimalism of that album makes even more sense live, as the band, seasoned improvisers and sensitive ensemble players to the man, use the building blocks of the album as a jumping off point for grand interstellar explorations and organic glitchpop symphonies.
They take the stage to a minimum of fanfare, looking like a druidic collective of musical alchemists from disparate phases of popular music history: Edward Ka-Spel with his monk's robe, long hair, and dark glasses coming on like a cross between a gnostic mystic and Ozzy Osbourne circa early Black Sabbath, Nils Van Hornblower with a natty new-wave black-and-white checkered suit and a meticulously shaved head, Ryan Moore looking like a grunge rocker in denim and baseball hat, and the mysterious Silverman with his long hair looking like a mad scientist. Outsiders forever. Immediately they begin picking apart, burrowing inside and playing around, frolicking sonically within the songs. The sense of glee and play is palpable. And admirable as hell. Songs expand and contract into vistas of improvised electronics, long, rolling harsh crescendos, mournful codas.
Each has his own set of archaic toys and instruments -- thankfully Dots live 2008 is devoid of the omnipresent laptop point-and-click zombie stare -- Ka-Spel and his crew bash away at their instruments like excitable children. They perform. This is a show, after all. Silverman fucks with evil looking wood-and-metal boxes or waves his hand around a mutant theremin. Ka-Spel inhabits the fractured characters of his fractured lyrics and for a second there you see flickers of Syd Barrett, but then he starts making bird motions with his hands and theatrically mashing buttons on some noise console. Ryan Moore's -- it means a lot to me seeing him play, because I remember getting chills over the flickering guitar lines he laid down like a lattice-work on the second Tear Garden album -- playing stretches out and expands live, abetted by numerous effects pedals, by turns alien blues, Hendrixian quicksilver, and introverted squiggles.
Hornblower, ah Hornblower. How does one compete with the other three? He does it with style and slapstick. Hornblower plays saxophone and flute lines that are by turns unbelievably delicate, like a fluttering heartbeat, and ear-wrenchingly dissonant, but always clearly in thrall to the needs of the song. No flashy solos, him. His performance style, on the other hand, outshines them all. His mannerisms are pure silent film comedy -- channeling the mischievous nature (and physical comedy) of a Charlie Chaplin or a Buster Keaton. When he saw a couple arm in arm down the front, he hugged his saxophone tight, when he saw a pretty girl in the front row, he took a deep bow and blew a little saxophone kiss to her, and then to the girl beside her, and on and on. Later he attached a small spotlight to the mouth of his horn and left the stage, zigging and zagging, creeping throughout the crowd like a mournful ghost, a spear of light and strange ambient tones lilting throughout the club. It's hilarious and affecting at the same time. And what about when he pulls out the horn that looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a time machine? And how long did it take me to realize that there was nary a percussionist in sight? Who needs'em?
When the band finally starts to break into their voluminous back catalog... well, even if you'd never heard the songs, you'd know by the outbreak of awkward Goth dancing. And having thoroughly given air to new music, the band don't seem to begrudge the old material at all. In fact, they start revisiting some of their more "classic" material (the audience whoops it up) with aplomb. The years melt away and the notes pour forth with naive charm; sunshiney pop melts into courtly chamber music, sinister vamps and musique concrete dissonance.
There are the inevitable encores and they happily oblige with extended mini-sets that take in both old favorite songs and long, extended noise workouts. They don't have to, but they do. At the very end of the evening, with both the band and the audience, exhausted, I remember speaking to Edward Ka-Spel, and him telling me what keeps the band vibrant after thirty years. He said that he's still as motivated as he was as a young man because he doesn't feel that he's come even close to really expressing the noises in his head, to finding the sound he's been looking for. Is it wrong of me to hope that he never finds it?