Spoon, Grizzly Bear serve up contrasting styles of indie excellence at Surly

Britt Daniel of Spoon

Britt Daniel of Spoon Amy Harris/Invision/AP

Spoon and Grizzly Bear offered two perspectives on gracefully aging aughts indie rock Saturday night at Surly's Festival Field.

Four years after 2010's Transference, Spoon entered a new era in 2014 with They Want My Soul, debuting a new lineup and displaying a relatively maximalist production aesthetic, which deepened on last year's danceable and mildly experimental Hot Thoughts. It's the most consistent band of the last two decades, and the group members take the stage like they know it.

Similarly, Grizzly Bear came back from a five-year absence after 2012's Shields with last year’s Painted Ruins. It's a beautiful album, and the Bears played an excellent set at Surly that was about evenly divided between new cuts and old—yet its position feels very different from Spoon's.

Spoon’s Britt Daniel is one of the strongest frontmen around, and the band's current lineup gives him the freedom to put his guitar down sometimes and just be the lead singer. Daniel also engages in little dual-guitar riff face-offs with bandmate Alex Fischel. He ranges the whole stage. He's got this little heel-spin move nailed. Periodically, he lets out a Little Richard-style falsetto.

In fact, Jim Eno, Spoon's drummer, had a picture of Little Richard on the resonant head of his bass drum. It wouldn't be entirely misplaced to compare Spoon's rock and roll spectacle to Richard's old-fashioned sense of showmanship.

During opener "Knock Knock Knock," Daniel stepped back, spit out some phlegm, and let out one big cough before getting back to the show. If Daniel was ill, he showed no other signs of it during the set. (Hopefully he didn't have a cold—playing with a cold sucks.)

And Daniel is hardly the only compelling stage presence in Spoon. Prior to the release of They Want My Soul release, the group added Daniel's Divine Fits bandmate Alex Fischel to the lineup as keyboardist and guitarist. His influence was immediately evident in the keyboard-saturated production on the two albums that followed, but the full extent of his contribution to the band is only evident live—he's the kind of performer who could develop a cult following of his own, like Pavement's auxiliary percussionist/screamer Bob Nastanovich. He strangles his guitar, and he's a wizard behind his keyboard rig, a virtuoso as a pure player and as a twiddler of knobs. The band is clearly aware they have something special in him: He gets his own keyboard interlude before "Hot Thoughts," during which everyone else leaves the stage.

For Grizzly Bear, things started a little shakily. Guitarist Daniel Rossen's amplifier malfunctioned right away, which led to an awkward pause between opener "Aquarian" and "Losing All Sense." The moment highlighted a major difference between these two bands—Grizzly Bear doesn't really have a frontman. The group started out as Ed Droste's solo project, but Saturday he tried his best to let Chris Taylor, their bassist, do most of the talking while Rossen's amp was being dealt with, and by my estimate Rossen took more lead vocals in the course of the evening. The four core members set up in an egalitarian line, with a fifth musician in back on keys.

Once the amp issue was sorted, Grizzly Bear’s set never flagged. Their collective instrumental prowess is tremendous, but on record, they’re serial teases: They only offer fleeting glimpses in the studio of the kind of face-melting you know they could do. Live, they edge a little closer to the cliff, but still never quite dive off—they deploy loud climaxes sparingly, kind of like the shark in Jaws. Individually, they’re not show-offy either, with the exception of drummer Chris Bear, whose playing verges into drum 'n’ bass territory on some of the new material. They show their chops more through their ensemble playing. A good example came in Saturday night's rendition of "Fine for Now," a cut off 2009's Veckatimest during which the whole band dynamically crashed and receded like ocean tides.

In a lot of ways dGrizzly Bear plays a kind of jazz. It's dressed in the instrumental palette of 21st century folk rock, and focused on arrangement rather than improvisation, but many of their songs have a sense of swing to them, largely imparted by Bear. On top of that, there's Daniel Rossen's guitar playing. He mixes John Fahey-like fingerpicking with rhythm playing not far from the tight, chordal chopping of big-band legend Freddie Green.

The Bears have their own Fischel-like multi-tasker in Chris Taylor; nominally their bassist he also handles reeds and produces the albums. He started one song playing saxophone riffs, which he recorded into a looping pedal before trading in sax for bass. He played bass while triggering the previously stored saxophone loops with his foot, then ditched the bass and picked up the saxophone again to play a few more live riffs, before finally ending the song once again playing the bass. (Logistically this didn’t seem to make sense, but it was impressive to watch.)

A decade ago, Grizzly wasf sort of an "important" band, at least if you accept 1) the premise that a band can be important, and 2) that a band's importance is directly related to the number of niche music blogs talking positively about them. Along with their peers in, for example, Dirty Projectors and Fleet Foxes, intricate, emotionally impressionistic indie rock did pretty brisk business for a while there. Even Jay-Z wrote about his love for Grizzly Bear in his book, Decoded.

Coincidentally, almost all of those bands put out long-awaited follow-up albums last year to a flurry of lukewarm thinkpieces about what it "meant" to be an indie rock band in 2017. (Spoon's Hot Thoughts got some of this hand-wringing action too, but overall its reception was more along the lines of "Spoon made another good album; it's, like, their eighth in a row.")

Painted Ruins , Grizzly Bear's entry in this slate of comeback albums, is fantastic, I realized this week when I listened to it straight through for the first time. (I'm part of the problem I pointed out in the paragraph above, FYI.) It seems like the band have become a little under-appreciated lately, even while releasing music that shows no dip in quality. Painted Ruins is a fairly impressionistic piece of work, but so is every single one of their albums. It sounds like Grizzly Bear.

Maybe making another excellent album that’s excellent in the same way your previous albums were is a little boring from a critical perspective, but all that falls away at a live show—where the strength of the present performance is the only thing at stake. Frankly, last night's audience seemed to be there more for Spoon, but Grizzly Bear gave a good show, one that highlighted their most recent, very good album, which is their fourth in a row—if they keep delivering, they will be alright. Consistency has panned out pretty well for their tourmates, after all.

Grizzly Bear setlist

Losing All Sense
Yet Again
Fine for Now
Ready, Able
Four Cypress
Mourning Sound
Sleeping Ute
Two Weeks
While You Wait for the Others
Three Rings
Sun in Your Eyes

Spoon setlist

Knock Knock Knock
Inside Out
I Turn My Camera On
The Fitted Shirt
Do I Have To Talk You Into It
Do You
Hot Thoughts
Can I Sit Next to You
My Mathematical Mind
Don't Make Me A Target
The Underdog
Small Stakes

Black Like Me
Don't You Evah (The Natural History cover)
The Way We Get By

About the opener: For reasons unknown to me, modular synth wizard Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, who was set to be the third act on the bill, did not perform.