I can vividly remember hearing Dan Deacon for the first time. His debut full-length album, released in the spring of 2007 (with the unfortunate title of Spiderman of the Rings) begins with a dense burst of buzzing electronic harmonies and sampled Woody Woodpecker sound-effects, and I was instantly a fan. Deacon’s music is exuberant and impossible to ignore—dense, rhythmic and filled with chirping and chiming. It’s laughably absurd and infectiously ridiculous, but too finely crafted and unforgettably unique to be dismissed as a novelty.
Tracks like “Crystal Cat” and “Snake Mistakes” retain the basic skeleton of a pop/ rock song (albeit the kind of song a hyperactive 4-year-old would write), but deeper cuts like “Big Milk” and “Pink Batman” reveal an almost-perfect ear for melodic composition and counterpoint, reminiscent of electronic founding fathers such as Kraftwerk, Raymond Scott and Jean-Jacques Perrey. He’s got the serious mind of a composer (with an actual degree in composition) and the soul of a lovable class clown (he’s perhaps the only contemporary artist who can successfully cover Bobby Darrin’s “Splish Splash”), and he’s able to combine his skills in the service of a larger musical vision.
I was able to catch one of his early performances in Baltimore. The phrase on everyone’s lips was “Wham City,” the short-lived Baltimore warehouse and performance art space of which Deacon was a co-founder, but also the title of Spiderman’s much-loved centerpiece, a 12-minute epic that frequently breaks down into a chipmunk-chirping choir singing a preposterous paragraph-long chant describing a fantasy party. It’s the most outlandish and attention-getting moment on the record, and the biggest source of anticipation among the crowd that night was if, and how, Deacon would perform it live. He did, and the solution was that Deacon distributed photocopied lyrics sheets so that the crowd, enamored with the album, the song, and the myth of Wham City, could form a chorus and perform together (we did). Many were Baltimore concert regulars, others (like me) were outsiders, strangers who had come from out-of-town for a festival, but for the duration of Deacon’s performance it felt like we had formed a community.
Deacon’s brilliance as a performer is that he’s able to take that sense of community with him everywhere he goes, building it from scratch in a new town in each night, starting over at the beginning of every performance. He has been ambitiously busy in recent years. The sophomore album, Bromst, managed the not-insignificant feat of sounding more somber and mature while also containing a song whose melody is performed by synthesized woofing and meowing sound effects. He’s been invited to perform serious orchestral works in classical music venues, led a DIY stand-up comedy tour, released a video collaboration with Baltimore artist Jimmie Joe Roche (Ultimate Reality, a musical epic set to appropriate footage from 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger films), and has scored a horror film by Francis Ford Coppola (2011’s Twixt, which has yet to see a wide release).
During his last appearance in Charlottesville, a 2010 concert at The Southern, Deacon set up his card table of gear in the middle of the audience, and asked for all the venue lights to be extinguished—he’d brought his own lighting rig, too (including a few strobes). As he performed songs both familiar and fresh, he led the sweaty crowd through a strenuous series of simple synchronized dance routines, culminating in a finale in which every member of the audience formed a circle and held hands, before acrobatically turning the circle inside-out.
It sounds like a child’s game or a corporate team-building exercise on paper, but at a concert it was a joyful revelation, a temporary disbanding of the rules of a “rock show.” At one point the 7′ tall, black-clad, severely pierced gentleman whose hand I was tasked with holding exclaimed “Wait, a minute, this is just like gym class!” in a tone indicating both skepticism and wonder, but soon enough he—along with every other person in the room—joined in and was giggling with glee as the crowd formed a tunnel that extended out the venue’s fire exit, down the street, and back in the front door.
Dan Deacon will perform at the Jefferson on Saturday, September 8 to promote his third album America, out now on Domino Records. Last week, it was announced that Deacon’s tour will make use of a mobile phone app that will turn the crowd’s phones into a spontaneous light show during the concert. He will be making his first appearance in Charlottesville with a full ensemble, and is supported by three Baltimore-based opening acts: Height With Friends, Chester Endersby Gwazda, and Alan Resnick. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door.