Back for the second time in the past year, Death From Above 1979 appeared this time at Racket, a venue in the former Highline Ballroom that opened only this year. It was my first trip to the Manhattan space, and my first time seeing DFA1979, and I was anticipating the experience.
Opening duties were handled by HXLT, the rap/punk/electro project of Chicago-born Nigel Holt (fka Hollywood Holt.) Holt is an able performer, prowling the stage with great energy and losing himself in the music and crowd response. An MC and veteran of rap battles, Holt has been open about his punk rock influences and even recorded with Kathleen Hanna. He hasn’t abandoned his rap background, though, and there is a great focus on flow in much of his singing, even as he is backed by a guitarist, drummer, and apparently his brother on synth/sampler.
HXLT undoubtedly picked up some new fans with their high energy performance. It was, however, quite distracting to have a videographer with a phone on stage throughout the entire show. I assume they were capturing footage for a video, which is understandable, but I would hope they limit that to only a few songs in the future.
Death from Above 1979 are one of my favorite bands, and I was heartbroken to miss their stop here at Music Hall of Williamsburg last November (see our coverage). They more than lived up to the hype I built in my mind with an intense, non-stop set. The Canadian group is known for conjuring a punishing, relentless sound with only two members—Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler—and they filled the space with that signature bass and drum combo. The pair were visually contrasting, Keeler in black and Grainger in white (now with bleached hair) but completely in sync on every song. Keeler is a constantly moving wizard on the bass, with an enviable mustache and a large pedal board, although according to a 2014 rig rundown much of his sound comes from amp distortion, which I don’t doubt after seeing those things. (Many of the pedals likely run off the synths, which Keeler also provides.) He rarely approaches a mic, instead hypnotizing the crowd with hyperactive bass lines played on two Lucite Ampeg Dan Armstrong Plexi basses.
A drummer who sings is almost a novelty, and I’ve always wondered why. Is it the limited movement? Do people who shun the spotlight take up drums on purpose? Is it difficult to play them and sing? I wouldn’t know; I find drumming to be like trigonometry and do not attempt it. But Grainger is a compelling singer, overlooked in my opinion, with emotive, at times desperate vocals. His beats are in no way an afterthought, and in a two-piece band his drumming is able to draw a focus in a way he might not be able to in a more traditional four piece group. For all their noise, DFA1979 make extremely danceable music, with grooves to be found in their most hardcore of songs. This was a show where I could throw up the horns and headbang while also shimmying my ass off.
And that spirit seemed to extend around the room. The crowd was very into the set, which pulled from all four studio albums, and sang and thrashed and bounced along, especially when Grainger jumped out from behind the drum kit on “Romantic Rights” (a funny version of that trick can be seen here). For the final song of the encore, “Pull Out,” HXLT appeared from side stage to take the mic back and ended up crowdsurfing, infused with the same energy as the audience, an energy that continued buzzing well after the set had ended.
Scroll down for setlist, pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)
Nomad, One + One, Virgins, Turn It Out, Caught Up, Free Animal, Totally Wiped Out, Modern Guy, Little Girl, White Is Red, N.Y.C. Power Elite Part I, N.Y.C. Power Elite Part II, Freeze Me, Going Steady, Black History Month, Crystal Ball, Trainwreck 1979, Romantic Rights, The Physical World Encore: Right On, Frankenstein!, Pull Out (with HXLT)
DEATH FROM ABOVE 1979