Caribou in the Park


"Handsome Dick" Manitoba is an ass.

When the schedule for New Music Mondays, a free concert series at Millennium Park, was released a couple of months ago, I made a note to see Caribou in the second week of July. Due to the clutter of things to-do that have occupied my mind as of late (hence, the once-a-month blog posts), the concert nearly slipped my mind. Although I had other nagging tasks, I looked over to Cloud Gate during the trip north on the 6 bus to a temporary home, and impulsively jumped off the bus.

Caribou/Manitoba is one of the first artists for which I had an affinity in the long gone days of my undergrad. My first listen to Up in Flames (2003) was revelatory – a jumbled, swirled, layered mess of sound (including a cough in the first track) that is processed into pure happiness in the brain. The diverse selection of samples include drum-line percussion, dogs barking, frogs croaking, children’s voices, glockenspiel, organ chords, and strummed acoustic guitar. Perhaps it helped that Dan Snaith, the mastermind behind the band, is a mathematician, completing his undergrad at my alma mater and his doctorate at Imperial College under Kevin Buzzard. It is ecstatic music, probably best experienced on a sunny summer day with headphones, and musically divergent from his first album; Start Breaking My Heart (2001) is comprised of ten tracks of glitchy, downtempo electronica, and is beautiful music in its own vein. The stylistic changes are not as drastic in his subsequent music, but Snaith draws from many influences: krautrock, psychedelic pop, and clubby dance music, with percussion as the unifying element.

My first Manitoba concert induced the same neurological flood of serotonin as my first listen to his second album. It was a free concert as part of Breaks, Beats, and Culture, a weekend festival for electronic music at the Harbourfront Centre. It was a beautiful summer Friday evening, and I arrived early after a good walk from work to get a seat. The stage faces Lake Ontario, and is cooled by a comfortable breeze at night. Jaga Jazzist played a great opening set, and I was joined by my brother and sister-in-law for the main event. The band (then consisting of three members with two drum kits, a laptop, and an electric guitar) played through Up in Flames wearing bear masks and complemented by a live backdrop of animated videos. I was enthralled, a huge smile plastered on my face, during the entire set.

So almost exactly six years later, I found myself in another city on a lake, attending a free Caribou concert at another (much bigger and fancier) public stage. Changes? Three more albums, an extra band member, a twenty-fold larger audience, and, unfortunately, less inspired visuals. The band mostly played tracks from the latest album, Swim, which, in Snaith’s words, was his attempt at making “liquid” dance music inspired by his swimming lessons and the clubs of London he has recently frequented. Swim sounds better live – the beats have a more raw, accessible energy, and the sound is meatier. The back catalogue was poorly represented: the band played two tracks from Andorra (2007) and one off The Milk of Human Kindness (2005). Although I’ll admit I found this a little disappointing, it was probably for the best – the enthusiasm of the dancing dipped considerably during the non-Swim songs. The small group of people dancing at the back of the seating section of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion reached critical mass during “Bowls”, culminating in a makeshift rave. It hit me that Chicago needs something akin to the Warm Up Series at PS1/MOMA in Queens – an early Friday evening dance party in an art-filled venue. Surely the culturally iconic and geographically adjacent Pritzker Pavilion and Art Institute of Chicago could combine forces and come up with some arrangement. The possibility of a dance party on the Renzo Piano-designed Nichols Bridgeway or in (on?) the Crown Fountain is alluring.

The consensus? By tweaking the setup, Snaith and his colleagues have maintained the high quality of the live show. Snaith’s compositions have become more focussed, with some songs on Andorra having chorus-verse songwriting. In response, the band has expanded, with more instruments and less reliance on the laptop. Regardless of these tweaks, the core remains invariant – few things capture an audience’s aural and visual attention like the continuous and synchronized abuse of two drum kits.


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Filed under Concerts, Music

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