Grizzly Bear rocks the Riv

Chicago’s Riviera Theatre will go down in history as the site of the first instance of crowd surfing ever at a Grizzly Bear show.

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“This has never happened before.  Thank you crowd surfer dude!” Vocalist Ed Droste could not contain his laughter as the fan was carried over the audience during “Lullabye,” a relatively mellow number that definitely would not be my crowd surfing song of choice.  Different strokes for different folks I guess.
       

The crowd’s energy paid dividends Sunday night as the Brooklyn quartet powered through a set including cuts from their latest album “Shields,” as well as favorites from two previous releases, including “Cheerleader,” “On a Neck, On a Spit,” and fan favorite “Two Weeks.”  After a yearlong sojourn into the Texas desert to record “Shields,” Grizzly Bear remain true to form by delivering intricate yet infectious grooves that meld well in a live setting.
       

Chris Bear’s fill-heavy drumming shone through in the mix, but the band’s signature four-part harmonies were at times lost in the Riviera’s muddy sound.  I’m no Steve Albini, so I can’t say if the space or the sound guy was to blame, but overall things could have been clearer.
       

This did not detract from the overall effect of the set, which was well paced and surprisingly all encompassing.  It is rare and refreshing to see a band that has been around as long as Grizzly Bear has that actually knows what songs their fans want to hear.  A healthy dose of 2009’s accolade-magnet “Veckatimest” and a surprising amount of songs from “Yellow House” were keenly placed throughout to keep energy high and fans engaged.  

Their new material was no bore either; “Sleeping Ute” was far more interesting than any other song with “sleep” in the title that I’ve ever heard, and newest single “Yet Again” was stuck in my head the whole night afterwards.  Encores “Knife,” “On a Neck, On a Spit,” and “All We Ask” were shrewd choices.
       

The opening act, Baltimore’s Lower Dens, did little to contribute to the lively atmosphere, playing songs from their newest album “Nootropics”.  At times they sounded like a Beach House cover band, sans organ or any joy whatsoever.

 Although their protracted psychedelic jams seemed intriguing, the theatre’s acoustics were much less in their favor than for Grizzly Bear, especially when they began to teeter on the brink of a feedback meltdown.  But between wincing and yawning, I heard some solid material and locked-in grooves.  This was also the first show on their tour, so perhaps the kinks will get worked out down the road.  It will be interesting to see where they are headed.
       

This being my first Grizzly Bear show, and considering myself only a casual fan, I can’t say I had any expectations prior, yet I came away exhilarated.  Maybe it was the catalogue-spanning set list or the hilariously out of place crowd surfing, or perhaps the giant incandescent light bulb set pieces that looked like props from some Tim Burton movie.  It certainly wasn’t their showmanship, and that is not a point of contention; Droste has gone on record about his displeasure with the expectation that performers must adopt an over-the-top onstage persona for themselves, and I can agree with that sentiment.  

The art in Grizzly Bear’s performance was not in the visuals but in the sound, and rightly so–this is a group of supreme innovators that is constantly surpassing any expectations that I may or may not have.
       

It almost made me want to crowd surf.  Almost.