Los Angeles acts Jay Som, a chilled-out indie rock band and Kamasi Washington, a funked-up sax player and bandleader, might not seem like the most intuitive picks to accompany Dirty Projectors for the group's performance of their entire new self-titled album and their first show in four years. Without a doubt, though, they were the perfect choices to kick of Northside Fest's 2017 McCarren Park shows.
As Jay Som came on, the crowd had a lukewarm enthusiasm and was ultra-cool in that way only Williamsburg can be. But the band was ready for the chilled-out vibe, matching the gently bobbing heads with beanies, loose-fitting clothes, and the slow pace of the West Coast chill, consistent and rhythmic like the Pacific tides.
Not to say that Jay Som was boring - hardly so. The guitarist's solos were shredding without screeching, and dramatic without reaching frenetic. His fingers slid over the frets with comfort and ease, and his lips were tight with concentration but not scrunched in wild abandon. Frontwoman Melina Duterte's eyes were often closed while she was singing, but she wasn't quiet or withdrawn - just lost in the moment.
Kamasi Washington, on the other hand, had a whole other sort of West Coast mood. Their rousing funk had the hipsters almost dancing, though even if the moves from his vocalist onstage would have outshone them by far. Though each bandmate on stage got their own solo throughout the set, Washington's famed skills stole the show, frequently becoming so passionate that the bell of his sax nearly swallowed the microphone he was playing into, and the appreciative nodding of his ensemble was so fervent that it was almost feverish.
Dirty Projector's set came just after the sun had set, allowing for the dramatic lighting to fully enhance the anticipation and excitement of the group's long-awaited return to the stage. Frontman Dave Longstreth brought even more than he promised, with musicians Olga Bell, Tyondai Braxton, and Nat Baldwin joining himself and at least six other players onstage. The full ensemble included horns, percussion, and modular work that created seismic soundscapes.
As he sang, Longstreth used his free hand to roughly gesture pitch intervals. One wouldn't blame him if it were his own way of keeping himself in tune - the album's songs were full of difficult melodies. Every music student in the audience got visibly aroused as the full backing band and vocals performed together in intentionally jarring counterpoint. The synth was dissonant, the percussion aggressive, and the arrangement stunning.
More than in the past, the Dirty Projectors' style held a palpable musical tension. It toed the line between impressive and unpleasant. One might imagine it's the sonic equivalent of rougher sex than you've ever had before, but with a careful partner - it was good, but in a very unnerving way. Notable is the fact that this is the first album after former band member Amber Coffman left the group, and the album itself felt in many ways like the rebound after a breakup.
But just as that same rough sex can, some songs crossed the line into discomfort. The songs blended together so completely that there were frequently 15 or 20-minute stretches with no stops, and intense vocal distortion from backup singer and keyboardist Bell, moments like Longstreth's shouts of "Taxi! Taxi!" over blaring drum machines were occasionally too much to handle. With respect given for the risks taken, being edgy brings you over cliff every once in a while; particularly if you spent your set staring the cliff in its void-y eyes and daring it to swallow you whole, see if you care. With live bass so high it was almost hard to breathe and monitors pumping sound at incredible levels, the edginess was even harder to control, occasionally feeling like despair.
Thankfully the rougher instances were sparse compared to the rest of the cinematic display. A stunning encore with Kelly Zutrau of Wet rounded off a euphoric comeback show and set the scene for a momentous release for Dirty Projectors' album.