Tame Impala is about as big as a contemporary rock band gets for people under 50 or so these days.
In April, they headlined Coachella. Last night, they played the first of two shows at Surly Brewing Festival Field, which feels a little momentous for that compound. Bigness aside, Tame Impala are the only "rock" band launched in the last decade that exerts a needle-moving influence on the more dominant modes of R&B and hip-hop, meaning the band occupies a unique cultural position. Sure, Surly consistently brings in major big-tent indie acts, but a regional brewer (albeit a huge regional brewer) booking Tame fuckin' Impala just feels like a bigger deal than Father John Misty or whoever.
The challenge a Tame Impala show presents to a reviewer is that the band is so tight and efficient at what they do it verges on uninteresting.
Chief Impala Kevin Parker came out carrying a Solo cup and waved to the crowd while his generally anonymous bandmates arranged themselves behind various keyboards, two drum kits, percussion, and stringed instruments. Parker stood front and center of the stage, and he and the other musicians played through the set with no discernible mistakes. Meanwhile, various psychedelic visuals were projected onto a screen behind the band, including manipulated footage of Parker performing. An advanced light show sent laser streams and strobe shivers from the stage out across the audience. The lasers, accompanied by ample fog machine fog, made it feel as likely you were seeing a Tame Impala mirage as the real thing.
To be clear: This is a killer show. It's also a show which, due to Parker's affable demeanor and the other musicians' motionless excellence, has little sense of tension or friction.
They don't play every song exactly as they do on record, but it often feels like they do because extra effort goes into not only playing the parts very closely to the recordings, but also to reproducing Parker's dense production textures. They recreate all those underwater-sounding filters on "Let It Happen" meticulously live, and they do the CD-skip part too. Parker's a big fan of running his music through a flanger, an effect that creates a time-delayed double of an instrumental part and changes the length of that delay cyclically so that the part has a sense of constant shifting—it sounds like the song is traveling through a wormhole. Flanged drum fills abounded; sometimes the whole band was flanged.
Central was Parker, who seemed at stretches to forget there was even a crowd present, offering just brief, occasional between-song remarks. He strolled around the stage pressing buttons, picking up guitars, playing them, putting them back down, sipping from his drink. He danced the way someone dances when they're listening back to a mix of a recording, not the way someone dances when they're dancing.
He first spoke after set-opener "Led Zeppelin" (a Lonerism-era iTunes bonus track) to say only "We're called Tame Impala," his slow, low-registered Australian accent sounding oddly Liverpudlian.
There's a hint of high school jazz band director to Parker's stage presence. He frequently looks back at group members, listening probably as much or more than the crowd, but he does this in laid-back non-maniacal fashion. This well-rehearsed vehicle pretty much drives itself, but the driver's still gotta check the mirrors every once in a while.
When they diverged from the recordings, it was through the naturally more present sound of instruments running through a huge sound system, and through small, showmanly flourishes and alterations to their songs. "Elephant," for example, shifted to a disco beat for a couple bars before the band landed hard back into the song's primary shuffle feel. "Apocalypse Dream" got the jammy showcase treatment, with the group demonstrating its locked-in-ness via starts and stops, tempo shifts, and monstrous, tumbling drum fills.
Tame Impala haven't put out an album since 2015's lousy-with-sad-bangers instant classic Currents, but a new album is imminent, and I've seen some online handwringing over the two singles from it so far, "Patience" and "Borderline." However, any trepidation around those songs was absent last night: "Patience" was greeted with an enthusiastic cheer.
But then this crowd was invested. Even the 107-second Currents oddity "Nangs" got the lake of bodies gently rolling. Parker is a producer and instrumentalist first, a renowned tinkerer deeply concerned with the aesthetics of sound. But it was clear from the crowd just how much some of his lyrics mean to people, to the point the band gets away with some daring-on-the-surface sequencing choices, like putting their seven-minute epic "Let It Happen" in the number two spot, and closing with the slinky, nocturnal "New Person, Same Old Mistakes"—the groove on that one screams mid-set, but the lyrics' plainspoken universality makes it finale-worthy. (People love that "I know that you think it's fake/ Maybe fake's what I like" line.)
The rise of streaming as the primary mode of music consumption (and its codification of most music as more of a lifestyle product than ever) and craft brewing's ascent to truly mainstream ubiquity each took place in roughly the last decade. (With the brewing revolution cask-aging, if you will, for years earlier.) Both phenomena have given us adventurous products and transcendent thinkers in each field, as well as gluts of undistinguished mediocrity and obnoxious advertising. Surly and Tame Impala both offer the former much more than the latter: Lifestyle products so named because they enrich life.
If I asked you what Spotify sounded like, some of the characteristics you'd probably list are very Tame Impala: loud, clear drum machines, crisp, gleaming synths, "chill" "vibe." (Fuzz pedal is a little more idiosyncratic.) But Parker's music rises above the level of mere playlist filler through his production craft, his attention to detail, and maybe most of all, the subtle emotional exposure of his lyrics. You can relax/study to his chill beats, but you might later find their rhythms imprinted in your heart. They straddle the line between musical Instagram filter and healing, probing art like few other bands. So their pairing with the Twin Cities' big, event-hosting, legislature-influencing, bee-keeping beer powerhouse went down smooth.
Note on the opener: Local up-and-comer Velvet Negroni opened, and I dug the song that sounded like "Don't Stand So Close to Me" with a messed-up beat.
Let It Happen
Feels Like We Only Go Backwards
Yes, I'm Changing
Why Won't You Make Up Your Mind
The Less I Know the Better
New Person, Same Old Mistakes