Deerhoof + Stargaze – Brighton Dome – 9th May 2018

I must admit to having a little trepidation when I put my name forward to review this show. I was worried that I might have ended up on the back foot, as someone who never really got into Fugazi. The proposition, as I understood it before attending, was that Deerhoof and the Stargaze orchestral collective  were going to pay tribute to Fugazi’s breakthrough album In On the Kill Taker, with new arrangements written for the ensemble. I was relieved when Greg Saunier, who drums in Deerhoof, besides being a composer and producer, introduced the show and immediately dispelled my fears. “I have never listened to Fugazi”, Greg began, before explaining that this musical cross-pollination came to him as something of a challenge from the Stargaze camp. He was commissioned to arrange the Fugazi material as solo performances for nine members of the collective.

This presented an obvious problem, in that Fugazi were a four-piece rock band. The genius of Saunier’s re-composition was his attempt to incorporate every aspect of the full band arrangement, from the off-beat hit of a hi-hat, to the counter rhythms of the three guitars and the melodies in the vocals, into the solo performances. Saunier doesn’t hold the Fugazi material with overdue reverence, enabling him to take the album as a starting point to develop from freely. The 12-track album was broken down into nine solo performances and three ensemble arrangements. I was struck from the first flute recital how much solo performances of this ilk, composed with nods to minimalism in classical music, forced us to look at the timbral qualities of the individual instruments. It was also interesting to note how we, as an audience, conformed to the unwritten rules of classical performance during the recital. All sat in complete silence, save for the distant sound of a disgruntled baby ringing round the hushed auditorium, patiently waiting to applaud rapturously at the end.

What Greg described as the preposterous nature of the proposition, meant we heard these instruments pushed beyond their comfort zones, both in the range of sounds we expect to hear from them, and in the abilities of the players, who had to perform passages which were incredibly physically demanding. All the wind players had to have insane lung capacities, and the players with instruments like the classical guitar, or the bass viol, with their multiple strings, were asked to play different rhythms across them. The results were often hypnotic, as the solo performances began sparse, slowly building to thunderous rhythmical crescendos, all within the stretched limitations of that instrument. The whole ensemble came together for the final song, even adding curious falsetto vocal performances to round off what had been a strangely mesmerising show. 

Deerhoof then set up to perform a set of their own brand of idiosyncratic avant-garde indie-rock. Inviting chaos at the door, their efforts during an afternoon at the Dome had clearly focussed on the orchestra, as it was evident the band’s amps, and singer Satomi Matsuzaki’s microphone, had not been thoroughly sound-checked, if at all. To my ears this all coalesced together beautifully, forming a nice transition from the natural timbres of acoustic orchestral instruments, to the amplified and enhanced sounds of a contemporary rock group. Within three songs the guitars had grown from being slight and a little tinny to weighty and powerful. Saunier on the drums was his usual restless energetic self, comically filling every possible gap in his playing with desperate efforts to tune his snare drum, flirting with disaster but somehow never missing a beat.

The band’s material gravitated mostly towards their last two albums, particularly last year’s masterful Mountain Moves, bringing a lot more funk than I was expecting. Satomi was on excellent form, performing what appeared to be choreographed dance routines during a segment of the set where she handed bass playing duties to guitarist John Dieterich, powered by a youthful energy that made her appear to be half her age. The sound problems from the start of the set came back to haunt them a couple of times, with the microphone cutting intermittently, particularly on ‘Come Down Here & Say That’. This was handled with such good humour and spontaneity you could be forgiven for thinking it was a planned part of the show. Greg initially began taking over Satomi’s refrain, singing through his drum kit’s overhead mic: “We dance merrily, for we are sad”. Then Satomi had the brainwave of inviting the French horn onstage, to play the melody, before all the wind players from Stargaze joined the group on stage-left, bringing the song to a rousing impromptu close. They returned for the proper finale, enhancing the rich instrumental melody in ‘I Will Spite Survive’ beautifully, making me think that an entire ensemble collaboration between the two groups would be a glorious thing.

Adam Kidd