On Saturday, October 17, the beautiful Commodore Ballroom played host to enigmatic art rock singer-songwriter Dan Bejar and his seven-piece band (known collectively as Destroyer). Of The New Pornographer’s fame, and with ten albums under his belt as Destroyer, Bejar is well established and well respected yet refuses to rest on his laurels; with each album he explores a new musical direction. Poison Season, his latest project, is jazzier and fuller than much of his earlier material, although just as poetic. While some listeners may be new to Destroyer, the large crowd at the Commodore was clearly made up of the dedicated. They were fans who have followed Bejar through his fascinatingly winding career – which, even after his many successes, still continues to grow.
Vancouver band Dada Plan opened the evening with their unique brand of spaced-out rock, often anchored by jazzy bongo rhythms. I was sorry to have missed the first half of their set; they are an intriguing group.
Frog Eyes, an indie rock group hailing from Victoria, followed. Carey Mercer and Melanie Campbell, who are married, are the band’s two most distinctive elements. Mercer sings with a spastic, anguished vibrato and Campbell compliments him with her punchy, accentuated drumming. Shyla Stellar plays twinkling, clean piano, and Terri Upton plays stand-up bass and electric bass. Frog Eyes, for me, was initially jarring, but seems an acquired taste; by the end of the set I began to feel drawn in by Mercer’s intensity (which, I might note, is counteracted somewhat by his affability when he speaks with the crowd). Frog Eyes feels a bit discordant and spooky at times – in sync with October’s falling leaves and darkening days.
Destroyer began their set with “Bangkok,” a gorgeous, smoothly cinematic piece with hushed vocals. Bejar’s appearance is somewhat at odds with this newest incarnation of his music; he looks professorly with his beard, mane of hair, and slightly rumpled button-down shirt. He comes across as a shy frontman, barely speaking or making eye contact throughout the set, and kneeling down to take swigs of beer in between vocal sections. Occasionally he would turn towards the band to play the tambourine or shaker, looking a bit like an inspired, eccentric conductor. This was not necessarily to his detriment, however; watching him get lost in the music, eyes closed, was endearing in its own way, and the band was allowed to rightly shine. Many songs featured flights of trumpet and saxophone, and the orchestral arrangements were lush and layered.
Highlights included songs from Poison Season such as “Times Square,” which carries lyrics like “Jesus is beside himself/ Jacob’s in a state of decimation/ The writing on the wall wasn’t writing at all,” while also sounding – perhaps in spite of Bejar’s best intentions – like it could get radio play. “Dream Lover” brought a shot of energy and buoyancy to the set, although Bejar tempers this with his characteristic wit: “Ah shit, here comes the sun,” he sings, before bright horns burst in. Poison Season feels theatrical in parts, like it could provide a soundtrack for a walk in the rain in New York City, perhaps stopping by a cabaret, the lights winking and reflecting in the darkness (“Girl in a Sling,” “Bangkok”). Bejar, who has drawn some comparisons with David Bowie, seems to be increasingly enamoured with the sounds of Sinatra, although his voice retains a grittier, wandering edge somewhat akin to Dylan.
My favorite moments, though, came from material from their earlier albums. Bejar was the most emotive he had been all evening during a tender, aching rendition of “Poor in Love,” from the album Kaputt. Destroyer also played the title song from Kaputt, with the crowd singing along, creating a poignant echo: “Wasting your days/ Chasing some girls/ Alright, chasing cocaine/ Through the backrooms of the world.” “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane” from the album Your Blues was a nice addition, allowing for a warm flute solo and some floating vocals.
Destroyer is consistently brilliant, if nearly impossible to pin down. While I find my individual preference lies with more of their earlier material, it was nonetheless an absolute treat to hear Destroyer play in their hometown of Vancouver. It will be interesting to follow where Bejar’s musical musings lead him next; be sure to stay tuned.