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Animal Collective have made music together for almost 20 years now, and they’ve amassed a deep catalogue of live recordings in that time. Their fans, much like those of the Grateful Dead, record and obsess over their live shows, each one different in atmosphere, equipment, setlist, and the people on stage.It’s hard to get Animal Collective fans on the same page, but I think it’s safe to say they were on a tear from about 2004 until 2011. They rewired a lot of brains to the point that they’re a reason why musicians now have samplers or sequencers onstage alongside guitars or drum sets. Some fans feel that Animal Collective hasn't been as exciting on more recent records as they were in their heydey, the band having entered an uncool wilderness period. (The Dead had a cool problem, too.) Specifically, they complain that the band’s songs sound a little too much like Saturday-morning-cartoons—music made exclusively for little kids.
And that's okay—their live show is still a wild experience. During a show I attended this summer, they teased what was probably a one second sample of a song, only to go into a totally different jam—something I've never heard them do before. The group continues to sidestep expectations, and in that vein I’ve made a completely subjective attempt at distilling five of their greatest live shows.
In the spring of 2004, Avey Tare and Panda Bear used the Animal Collective moniker to release Sung Tongs, an album of intensely stoned, sleepaway camp-style music that raised the group’s profile. But the band had already moved on, performing as a quartet and debuting new material live that would eventually become 2005’s Feels. Marked by de-tuned, rubbery guitars, angelic vocals, and underscored by an sense of awestruck wonder, this show is the beginning of the band congealing into something new and exciting.The opening string of “People,” “Turn Into Something,” and “Loch Raven” is just straight-up beautiful, the musical equivalent of a time-lapsed sunset. Then comes “Banshee Beat,” its circular drum loop underneath a swell of ethereal, arpeggiating guitars. Even the subtle chord change during the build-up feels like it could move mountains, inducing slack-jawed "oh my gods” among festival lurkers and acid casualties alike. Avey Tare’s vocals are phased out and layered, oscillating between fanatical joy and meditative chants; somewhere in the cut is Panda Bear, using a simple floor tom and samplers.
ArtsPlace, Lexington, Kentucky—April 30, 2005
This era might represent the group at its most fluid: four deeply touched dudes letting you in on the séance. You don’t know where one song starts or ends, and sometimes it’s like they’re not even making music, just pulling back the tree branches to reveal a natural world that’s been waiting there for us the whole time.
After a few years of performing some fried noise shows, Animal Collective reduced to a duo and started playing celestial, back-to-the land folk songs. The beginning of this period is Campfire Songs, which is technically a live recording done on a porch in rural Maryland, The show at Other Music is a nice bookend to this era (Dave Portner and Noah Lennox used to work there); here, they’re joined by Deakin in presenting what is maybe the most simple performance in the group's history, absent of any electronic soundscapes that underlined the Sung Tongs period. It's all unaffected vocals, acoustic guitars, and handclaps, beginning with the tongue-and-cheek “Happy Singing Band” and lulling into a sort of dream state before snapping back into “Covered in Frogs” and a cover of Nirvana's “On a Plain”—one of two Nirvana covers they did during this era (“Polly” was the other). “Winters Love” remains one of their best songs, sounding like a distant cry in the woods for a little peace on earth; by its end, the group uses audience applause to segue into the foot-stomping "Baby Day." Everything here is laid bare. The seamless transition between songs shows the group could craft a free-flowing, uninterrupted set with just acoustic guitars.
Other Music, New York City—August 16, 2004
Panda Bear’s solo music has always been the gateway drug into Animal Collective. When the group started making looped, rhythm-heavy songs, it represented them following his lead for the first time. Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion era ushered in a new type of modern psychedelic music, one that was the perfect combination of organic and electronic sounds. These songs felt submerged, pulsating with bass and upfront percussion.On this set, Avey Tare and Panda Bear were basically one unit by now, a spiraling vocal symbiosis. This recording is remarkably good, and it also gives you a sense of how pulverizing the low end was during these shows. The peak is “Fireworks,” which balloons into a 20-minute epic containing one of the group’s oldest songs, “Essplode”—not to mention the closest thing you’ll ever get to an Animal Collective guitar solo. Avey Tare is rarely thought of primarily as a guitarist, but he shows off a rare glimpse of traditionalism here. A fun game to play is trying to figure out who is producing which sounds, as the group just looks like they're playing video games on stage, never acknowledging each other. The band has always been good at mixing disparate elements—light and dark, the trippy with the poppy—into something deceptively simple.
Lux Frágil, Lisbon, Portugal—May 28, 2008
By the summer of 2009, Animal Collective were experiencing mainstream success for the first time with the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion, but they had already been touring its songs for about two years. This soundboard recording at Big Sur’s Henry Miller Library—an intimate, outdoor performance on a foggy night—is the Merriweather era in full focus. Here we get touchstones from the period, including “Summertime Clothes,” the Afro rave-up “Brother Sport,” and a one-off version of Bleed. The group was really onto something during this period. Their shows felt like an exorcism, as if they were making music for a kind of ineffable power.
Henry Miller Library, Big Sur, California—June 27, 2009
Festival sets are rarely an opportunity to capture great live shows, although this one at Pitchfork Festival is an outlier—and much of it could be due to the way the show was recorded. This close-speaker recording that leans toward the loud side really brings out the abrasive nature of the Centipede Hz songs, which were high-powered as a result of Deakin’s return and Panda Bear manning a sit-down kit for the first time since the band’s early days. His drumming, frenetic and simple, is a big highlight of the era, particularly in “Today’s Supernatural” and “Did You See the Words?.” The Avey Tare-centric songs, which sound like radioactive, fuzzed out transmissions from space, were a turn away from the sugary doses of Merriweather Post Pavilion.On record, Centipede Hz ended up a little over-baked compared to the looser live versions that were incubating on this tour. This show is the closest AC has gotten to proggy stadium rock, juxtaposed among warped radio signals and alien textures. If you're looking for a bit more revved up AC set that shows off a good range of their catalogue, check out this show.Follow Justin Kloczko on Twitter.