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February 2, 2007

Deerhoof tramples rock standards

Deerhoof is one of the most adorable and inevitably volatile live bands performing today. Front woman Satomi Matsuzaki is a pint-sized dynamo who has been known to bring oversized stuffed bananas and strawberries onstage and gesture like a kindergarten teacher or jerky (the adverb, not the adjective) crossing guard. Her bandmates, drummer Greg Saunier and guitarist Rob Fisk, tower over Matsuzaki with an endearing gawkiness intensified by their musical precision.

The band’s reputation precedes them in Chicago, as their show at the Metro on Saturday was sold out. Legions of eager fans stood through three openers, including the superb lyricist Busdriver—who at this point deserves to play a headlining show in Chicago—to await Deerhoof’s explosive riffs, nonsensical lyrics, and infamous simplistic dancing and pointing.

The band, which has been playing together for over ten years, has the ability to create a live show that is inherently contradictory. They are whimsical yet intense, drawing on nine albums’ worth of slightly priggish, massively adorable, and vaguely creepy rock. Deerhoof’s music features lyrics like “Flower Flower Flower/ Power Power Power” and “Panda panda panda/ I like/ Panda panda panda/ Bye bye.” These would probably enthrall your average nursery school class, but Deerhoof is aiming higher. Regardless, their instrumentation is more than enough to supplement this poetic absurdity. In some ways, Deerhoof is too complex for words.

For this show, Deerhoof considerably toned down the bizarre cuteness of their past tours. Clad entirely in black, with a t-shirt that read “worried,” Matsuzaki was outsized by her large bass guitar and her giant black boots. Saunier, her husband, was barefoot behind his transparent pink snare drum as usual.

While Deerhoof’s music is sonically complex, part of the fun of seeing them live is seeing the way that the band appears on stage. Where Saunier and Fisk hunch and bend, Matsuzaki stands straight and erect, pointed and saluting at the audience. Yet in between sets Saunier is the one to stroll over to the microphone, which is about half his size, to bend over at his waist and address the crowd with an awkward “Hello.” Both my concert companions (6’2” and 5’2”) felt a sense of kinship with the band members.

After so many years of playing together, Deerhoof is one of the tightest bands in indie rock. Their last album, The Runners Four, was widely regarded as an attempt to make a lot of creatively structured pop songs, and their new album Friend Opportunity seems to be expanding on that trope. Until spring of last year, they had another guitarist, Chris Cohen, who amicably left the band to pursue his side project.

Yet the loss of Cohen seems to have improved Deerhoof’s chemistry, as they appear to be more creative than ever in their use of the miniscule lineup. Though gigantic touring bands are all the rage in progressive indie rock, Deerhoof seems to be thriving with just the three band members—Saunier bent over his drum kit, Fisk with his back turned, and Matsuzaki with her eyes turned downward towards her massive bass guitar. Their specificity as a live band is enthralling.

Deerhoof played several songs from their newest album, which came out on Kill Rock Stars in January. One song of note was “+81,” which featured birdlike vocals and a great go at murdering the drum set from Saunier. It is a good song, especially compelling in concert, stripped of the complex production on the single version. This is the essential joy of seeing a band in concert—watching them perform, watching them interact, and hearing something new and exciting in potentially familiar music. Deerhoof hits all of these points, and they do it like a dart to the heart. There isn’t much more to ask for, except maybe a stuffed banana.