By Emily Votaw
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Who is Dan Deacon?
An electronic pop guru?
An avant-garde composer?
A fanatic devotee of Looney Tunes and Spiderman?
Deacon is a bit of each of those things, but none of those descriptions can do you much good in describing the odd atmosphere he creates during one of his live performances. Deacon played a one-off gig at Columbus’ shabby but chic Rumba Café last week before heading off on tour with Arcade Fire. Many people come to Deacon’s shows, and a lot of them aren’t the sort of people whom you would expect to enjoy a 45-minute psychedelic electronic pop freakout. Athletic types with cheap beers in hand, black-lipsticked teenagers dressed entirely in Hot Topic gear, eclectic couples in their 50s, sunny-haired girls in tight jeans.
And that’s because Deacon’s shows are legendary – bizarre feats of audience participation and loud, constantly stimulating electronic music.
So when someone yelled from the audience “Play all the hits!” shortly after Deacon came on stage, it was a bit of joke to everyone, including Deacon, who would apologize before his finale for his lack of “hits.” Because to Deacon, “True Thrush” or “Woof Woof” aren’t “hits,” a word synonymous with the performer’s least favorite tracks to perform. The slightly more accessible songs in his discography are simply that: the more accessible songs in his discography. Although devoted fans might have had particular songs in mind they hoped Deacon would bring out for the show, for the most part people are just at a Dan Deacon show for a strange millennial dance party.
Deacon’s stage banter is more than just your run-of-the-mill obscure musician stage banter. It’s funny, clever and it manages to make the audience feel like Deacon is just one of their goofy buddies instead of a musician who has been on the rise for the past decade. The last time he came to anywhere near the Ohio State University campus was late in 2012, shortly after the release of “America,” when he told the same hilarious story about being turned down to play a gig at a pizza place somewhere near Columbus that he told Tuesday night. At that time the story was funny, but only slightly so. Because the room was pretty full, not packed, and at the time “America” had only been out for a number of weeks, long enough for it to receive some positive leaning, but not glowing, reviews.
On Tuesday night that same story was hilarious. Because the Rumba Café was completely packed. Because “America” ended up being one of Deacon’s most widely distributed albums. Because only days after the tiny show in Columbus Deacon would be playing enormous venues with one of the most popular indie acts of this generation.
Deacon opened with “Of the Mountains,” a commanding cut from 2009’s “Bromst.” Immediately the audience was gyrating, the music from one man and his electronic rig filling the small venue to capacity. From there it sounded like Deacon played around with his bizarrely uplifting “Gangrimes Style,” a 2012 remix of “Gangnam Style,” although it might have been some of Deacon’s new material that bore slight resemblance to the weird mash-up of mainstream radio music. Deacon did premiere a number of new songs, and reassured fans that he is close to finishing a follow up to 2012’s “America.”
After several songs, the real crowd participation started, slowly but surely. First, Deacon just had the crowd pass off high fives and move in union, but before long everyone in the venue was gathered around a clearing towards the stage, couples dancing off of each other and picking people from the crowd to take their place. The peculiar sense of community at a Deacon show is probably one of his greatest feats as a musician or as a part of the current pop culture scene. The people at the show, largely in their 20s or early 30s, are inarguably a part of a generation that has less of a sense of connectivity with their fellow human than generations before them. Regardless of social media or the incredibly advanced technology available at almost everyone’s fingertips, the amount of time that someone can go without a meaningful interaction with someone else is in 2014 is astounding.
But when you’re creating a human tunnel out of a sweaty, packed venue by holding hands with a stranger, the sort of connection that you feel to that other person, no matter how brief, is fascinating and enlightening. Something you just don’t find anywhere else and something that takes a sort of bravery that is simultaneously embarrassing and profoundly important.
As Deacon said before instructing the crowd on the proper etiquette in the dance circle he created – “And most importantly, no cowards,” indicating that if someone who had danced in the circle chose you out of the 300-some other people packed around you – you had better dance and you had better mean it.
Towards the middle of the show, Deacon broke out “Snookered,” another track from “Bromst,” and another opportunity for the crowd to allow the music to completely immerse it. By the time Deacon played his finale, a masterful rendition of all four parts of “America,” the connection that you felt with the others who had experienced the show was odd and undeniable.
Dan Deacon is a lot of things. But most of all he is an incredibly gifted musician who understands how connecting with your fellow twentysomething in a dimly lit venue is at least somewhat akin to a religious experience.