TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES: Deacon's transition from lovable tabletop one-man band to traveling circus hasn't exactly been smooth — but it's hard to imagine any other way.
Last Friday night, Dan Deacon dug frantically through tangles of cables for one that might get a live signal out of the duct-taped pile of equipment in front of him. A fire truck and an ambulance, pulling up outside the windows behind him, filled the room with dueling strobes.
"If this gets shut down, I swear this place will be haunted by a ghost that lives inside my brain," he moaned over the mic. "I know that made no sense, I don't care. I hate this." After a few more moments of staring at his mixer, he punched the demo button on a tiny synth; it blasted a low-bit "When the Saints Go Marching In" as he disappeared to find help.
Deacon has spent enough time in basements to make shutdown flashbacks understandable. This time, however, we were in the wide-open lobby of the ICA, where a good portion of the crowd that had gathered for "Experiment" was sipping wine on the front deck and picking at Wolfgang Puck mini pizzas.
Deacon's transition from lovable tabletop one-man band to traveling circus hasn't exactly been smooth. Connections still burn out and lights still fall over, and he still sometimes finishes tours with his arm in a sling. He wears busted glasses like a badge of honor. It sounds disastrous, but I can't imagine it any other way.
You might have thought we'd seen the last of that side of him when his new album, Bromst (Carpark), showed up this year. Deacon, who has a master's degree in electro-acoustic composition from SUNY-Purchase, grabbed the cultural capital he'd earned with the sprawling layers of 2007's Spiderman of the Rings and his gonzo live show (a mix of early low-tech rave, summer-camp pep rally, and Lightning Bolt pigpile) and spent it on one very intensely crafted record.
Bromst feels like a bid to be taken seriously. Deacon backed off the fried electronics (a little) and invited a slew of live musicians into the mix — blurs of mallets, chimes, frenzied drum corps, guitars. He also added some breathing room. For years he'd been garnering well-meaning comparisons to Steve Reich and Conlon Nancarrow. Bromst was by far his boldest step in that actual direction.
Which brings us back to Friday night at the ICA and its crush of fans old and new, plus open-minded souls in sportcoats and a throng of sharply dressed ICA staff. I mused on the first time I saw Deacon play (to an empty ZuZu) and then the sweaty mob scenes at MassArt and wondered how we'd gotten to what seemed like cultural window dressing. There were really two performances: Deacon's for the audience, and the audience's for the dozens of curious onlookers still finishing cocktails. Was he really growing up before our eyes?
Nah. After "When the Saints Go Marching In" hit its last little flourish, a triumphant Deacon re-emerged and plugged in a cable. (The emergency vehicles had vanished, after answering a 911 call for a patron who'd passed out but recovered just fine.) No orchestra, just a tiny iPod Shuffle, a slew of pedals to mangle his voice, and a couple of power strips' worth of lights. He led the crowd in a "Beat It"–style dance-off and organized a group scalp massage. Sure, the audience had thinned out by the halfway point, and maybe his homemade set-up isn't yet ready for prime time, but there were still plenty of boos from true believers when at 12:50 am (well past the scheduled midnight conclusion), the ICA pulled the plug on him mid song.
"Not my fault!", Deacon yelled through cupped hands, but no one was complaining. They all knew the last laugh was on the ICA, and it belonged to the ghost inside Deacon's brain.