Occasionally, performances don't go as well as they could and no one really seems to be at fault. Such performances are usually known as "the opening act." Granted, some opening acts are just terribleup-and-coming bands from the same hometown as the headlining act are the paradigm case of awful opening bandsand have only themselves to blame for an audience's unresponsiveness. As a general rule, however, audiences tend to be unresponsive to an opening act regardless of the caliber of that act. They talk throughout the set because the band is an opener, not because the band is talentless. I saw Preston School of Industry open for Wilco twice within the past year, and both sets were rough. Preston School of Industry played well; their album is exceptionally good, and they have headlined on their own North American tours. Scott Kannberg may well have played some of his best live shows on that tour, and no one would have known it. Again, that was not anybody's fault. The audience probably cared about Scott Kannberg's music; most of the people in an audience for Wilco would have sold off a child to see Pavement play live. Opening acts are just in the unfortunate position of being a sop for the impatience, intolerance, and not-quite-boozy-enough-to-be-accommodating tempers of audiences.
I kept thinking about this phenomenon as I watched Destroyer play at the Abbey Pub on Saturday night. While technically an opening act for Calexico, Destroyer appear to be capable of headlining in their own right, and indeed in many parts of the country Calexico would open for them. However, since Calexico is signed to a Chicago record label, I suppose this was something of a hometown show for them. Consequently, Destroyer got the opening slot of a show billed as a Calexico show. While Destroyer may be growing something of a cult following in the U.S., the chilly reception they got Saturday night showed that they are clearly not drawing from the same pool of music listeners as Calexico. Indeed, the independent pop aesthetic of Destroyer is fairly distant, in modern rock terms, from the avant-garde country of Calexico.
Destroyer frontman Daniel Bejar seemed to know that this was not his crowd. Given time for a forty-five minute set, his goal quickly went from filling those forty-five minutes to surviving those forty-five minutes. There was no banter, there were no stories, and there were no gratuitous thanks. Indeed, all the conversation on stage took place among the band members, who were either debating about the set list, or complaining among themselves about the Abbey's acoustical problems. The band tried, as most opening acts do, to win over an ambivalent group. The delicate compositions the band displayed on their latest release, This Night, were turned into full-fledged rockers. The instrumental juxtaposition of songs like "Self Portrait with Thing" and "Holly Going Lightly" was abandoned to make room for power chords and cacophonous drum beats. The slow build-up of the album version of "This Night" was jettisoned, and the band rushed straight to the "shoo-be-doo-wah-wah-wah" of the chorus on the supposition that this was probably the most audience-pleasing part.
It was unclear how Destroyer's music would carry over to a live performance; a great deal of its effect depends upon hearing and absorbing the lyrics and following the gradual accumulation of melodies. Simply put, appreciating Destroyer is not an easy thing to do in a smoky bar filled with people not-so-patiently waiting to see another band. If Destroyer's live shows are generally this lackadaisical, then the band may have a prominent weakness. I'm not willing to make such a pronouncement just yet; instead, this appeared to be another performance that was far from optimal, but for which no one is to blame. Fan indifference was normal given the circumstances, the out-of-sync performance of the band was equally predictable, and the short set didn't make things any easier. Such are the drawbacks of second billing.
Calexico, who did not have to face such hurdles, played a longer and more warmly embraced set.