Though he released the seventh LP from Dirty Projectors back in February, Dave Longstreth has kept a low profile since, electing not to tour behind the muted recollection of a failed relationship. His headlining show at McCarren Park on Thursday, the first public performance by the band since 2013, was something of a debut for the solo incarnation of Dirty Projectors. The question on the audience’s mind, then, as the sun dipped into Manhattan’s skyline with a dizzying display of color, was what this era of the band would sound like.
Dirty Projectors reached a cultural high watermark in 2009 with the confounding masterpiece Bitte Orca. Propelled by the harmonies between Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian, the album has come to define an aesthetic embodied by the Brooklyn fussiness you’ll recognize walking into any Bushwick cafe. Deradoorian left the band in 2012 to pursue a solo career, and Dirty Projectors regrouped to record the cozy Swing Lo Magellan. Coffman departed thereafter (her solo debut, City of No Reply, was released on June 2), ending one of the decade’s most fruitful artistic collaborations—as well as her romantic relationship with Longstreth.
I expected Mr. Dirty Projector to perform by himself in order to make visual this loss of his creative and intimate partner. Instead, as the sun waned, Longstreth walked on stage accompanied by an odd assortment of an orchestra. Led by Tyondai Braxton, ex-Battles, the backing musicians formed less a bass-guitar-drum rock cliché than a loose panoply of the avant outfit’s sound. A percussionist, playing next to an instrument suspiciously resembling a coat rack, accentuated some songs with a xylophone, lending them the unsettling chirps of an iPhone. A horn section added deep bursts of chaotic brass in standout track “Death Spiral” as Longstreth yelped about reaching out to grab a lover’s arm from a taxi. Though the drummer manned a rather spare kit to provide what little rhythm the songs grooved to, Dirty Projectors excelled when they found room to jam. Taking cues from space-jazz opener Kamasi Washington, the band expanded its arrangements live to fill out the experimental genre-busting it’s known for on record.
Longstreth is a versatile singer who can sing in barking colloquialisms and his tender tenor both. But he, alas, does not have the vocal chops of the band’s departed singers (who does?), forcing him to rely on the vocal manipulations featured throughout the recent record. To say that these songs “came alive,” then, would be overstating the case. The processing distanced Longstreth from the audience, a out of place addition for a homecoming solo show, though that was the point—even as he continues to blend together his brand of funky pop, he remains aloof and in grief, removing himself from the pain he has recorded in song.
The exception to this was “Little Bubble,” a gorgeous tune with one of the most accessible hooks that Longstreth has written since Swing Lo. Like an alt-universe Rostam, Longstreth contorted his voice around the song’s supple vowels, describing a lazy morning waking up in tossed sheets beside a lover. Licked by the evening’s warm breeze, the audience mouthed along with Longstreth’s wist. “We had our own little bubble,” we sang, catching a glimpse into Longstreth’s world before its title burst with a devastating punctuation: “for a while.”
Photos by Zane Roessell