Ariel Pink and the Haunted Irenic

Originally published by San Diego Reader’s Jam Session blog

By Natalie Jacobs

“This is a nice little break in the afternoon here in the house of the lord. Now let’s play the devil’s music.”

That’s how Ariel Pink opened up his Haunted Graffiti show on Thursday night at San Diego’s holiest indie rock venue, The Irenic. It could not have been more appropriate. Something about seeing Ariel Pink perform in a church felt strange, especially as his latest album, Mature Themes, lives exactly up to its name. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been told it was a church before he got there.

After the first song, it was clear he was a bit perturbed – “I feel a little guilty being here, ’cause I’m Jewish.”

Maybe he was joking but the amateur assembly of the place didn’t offer any comfort. The hour-long set, featuring songs mostly from Mature Themes with the occasional curveball like the “Hardcore Pops are Fun” throwback to 2006, was mired in sound troubles.

“There’s a problem in the house of the lord…maybe this show is cursed,” he said, after issues persisted at one point for five straight minutes.

Maybe the fact that The Irenic is a church (that goes by missiongathering when it’s not hosting rock bands) had nothing to do with it, but it was obvious that Pink was frustrated.

He did note, however, that he was happy to be in San Diego. When the mics continued glitching and the reverb wasn’t quite right on his cacophony, he even let that roll off his shoulders noting “it’s cool, anything is better than the Casbah. No offense.”

I guess he didn’t know that the Casbah presented this show at The Irenic – which means they booked and promoted it.

The Irenic is all-ages on a residential street in North Park. Given the location, they are governed by noise ordinances so weeknight shows must end by 10:00 p.m. sharp. Despite the adequate length of the set, some patrons were surprised that they showed up only in time for one song and the encore, according to comments on the venue’s Facebook page. My guess is these were the 21+ attendees, used to more authentically Rock-n-Roll venues.

In addition to getting the full-set experience, on-time attendees swarmed up after the opener, Dam Funk, to take advantage of The Irenic’s mini-stage, a semi-circle raised about six inches off the floor, in an attempt to get closer to the action.

During sound check, Pink politely asked everyone to back up off it. It turned out that he wanted to do his set on the mini-stage while his Haunted Graffiti sprawled out, smiling and jamming on the main stage. For those of us in back of the half-full house, featuring a healthy mixture of fans aged 16 to 34, it made the show a bit more abstract since we couldn’t see Pink’s wild flailing and infectious bouncing. But thank God for the video.

The space features two flat-screens positioned on either side of the stage. Pink’s movie started with footage of him smoking cigarettes presumably in his Los Angeles apartment.

As the music slowed for “Symphony of the Nymph”, a close-up shot of a gyrating tongue, spliced together into six hexagonal shapes, pulsed in forward motion on the screens. Like we were playing a deconstructed game of seven minutes in heaven, it alternated between sexually uncomfortable and visually surprising. The audience must have been transfixed, either by the explicit lyrics or the striking images, because no one danced to this dreamy number.

While Pink cooed “step into my time warp, time warp, time warp” during “Is This The Best Spot”, the screens showed a close up of a girl holding a watch chain, ticking it back-and-forth like a hypnotist. Those closest to Pink bobbed up and down a bit.

Then came a transmorphic mash-up of female celebrity faces for an extended version of “Pink Slime”. As each image blended from one to another to another, it became clear that every Hollywood actress is made from exactly the same gene pool.

Ariel Pink came to the show with a young blonde woman wearing a flowing, floor-length, green-and-white checkered dress and a red beret. She appeared to be the only one not under a stand-still spell. She would leave her post at the merch table or emerge from the stage-left room that served as the artist holding area to writhe around the space like a misplaced flower child of the ’60s. Toward the end of the show, she seemed to have had enough of the audience’s tense stagnation and danced up to people individually to get them moving to the music. It worked, until she floated away.

It’s been said that Pink has had problems with underwhelming live shows in the past. That’s not surprising, given the complex production of each song. It can’t be easy to repeat those sound mixtures, and the sudden shifts from hard and rough to smooth and gingerly must require a very advanced sound guy (or gal) to keep up. Because of the struggles, it seemed he might skip the encore, but I think those are written into contracts these days. He and the band kept us guessing for about thirty seconds before they came back to play two songs, ending on Before Today’s up-beat “Bright Lit Blue Skies”. Pink added a few extra screams and threw himself into the audience, creating a mosh-pit and getting the whole crowd moving just a tad too late.

I wanted this to work out, because San Diego needs more cool places to see interesting live music, but I walked away from this show feeling a bit embarrassed for our little town. Outside, it felt like we were waiting to blow bubbles at a newly married couple. Inside, it was like we were at a high school homecoming dance. You can’t just charge $20/ticket, open the doors 30 minutes late, sell PBR from a cooler, hire a sound guy and call yourself a concert venue.

The video, the A.P.H.G. spelled out on the stage in light-up PVC pipe, the microphone-licking Pink, his blazer-wearing Graffitis and the Siren-like muse begged to be witnessed from a place equally as interesting to be inside of. Something like a dark basement where the walls are tagged in neon writing, the bathroom lights twitch neurotically and the sound bounces in every direction until it punches holes through our brains would have been more appropriate. The Irenic is just a refurbished church with the lights turned off.