Congregation Finds Its Deacon

Originally published on the San Diego Reader Jam Session blog

By Natalie Jacobs

I did it again. Much sooner than I thought I would. I went back to The Irenic because I couldn’t resist Dan Deacon.

I started listening to Deacon in college, circa 2008, after watching him open for Girl Talk. Deacon destroyed the dance floor with his infectious energy, improvised lyrics and live sound mixing. It was just him and his soundboard – a tarantula farm positioned on the floor about as far away from the stage as he could get. Before the push of the first button, we swarmed into his trap door and became one with his glitchy electronica. It still baffles me how this man could play such intricate tunes, seamlessly, while smashed beneath layers of bouncing fans.

It was the middle of a brutal Chicago winter and we all left sweating our brains out. But nothing mattered except the ringing in our ears and the uncertain reality of what we had just witnessed.

From then on, Deacon held an important spot on the soundtrack to my college years. So, when I heard he was making a stop in San Diego on the west coast leg of his America tour, nostalgia got the best of me and I had to check it out.

It’s no longer just Deacon and his soundboard – though I’m pretty sure he uses the same handmade contraption. He’s now touring with two drummers and a keyboard player/back-up vocalist. He mostly stayed on the stage for this one but audience participation is still a big part of his gig.

He opened with songs from 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings and quickly requested that the audience spread out around the perimeter of the floor space, into a big circle. He asked the two kids wearing home-made masks, whom he dubbed “the editors of US Weekly”, to step in the middle. They were instructed to get the dance party started – showing off their freestyle moves for 10-15 seconds before running out to the crowd and tapping in the next participants. Leaving their humility on the outskirts, eager fans let loose under the spotlights like they had the whole house to themselves on a Friday night.

This latest album, America, is much more polished than Deacon’s others, but it’s no less textured, complex and adventurous. During “Lots”, America’s punchy, yelping third song, the audience was right there with Deacon on every breath. With the heavy drum beat and outer-space synths of “Crash Jam”, the crowd danced to the moon and back.

On his website, Deacon explains that America is about the “layering of dichotomies: light and dark, acoustic and synthetic, celebration and contemplation.” This is America, but it is also, undoubtedly, America. His show did nothing if it didn’t wholeheartedly illustrate this idea.

Since America is a bit heady at times, his older tunes remain the crowd favorites. But he made the show almost equal parts old and new. “The Crystal Cat” and “Wham City” take me to a special place in my own history, so it’s nice to see younger crowds still getting a chance to dance shamelessly with those wickedly fun songs in a room full of strangers.

Deacon works hard during his shows, and so do his touring bandmates. I can’t believe that his drummers woke up the next morning and had to do that all over again. I’d need at least a week’s recovery time before I could even use a fork. Having two drummers exude that level of ferocity, added to Deacon’s maniacal button-pushing and the keyboarder’s breathless screaming, made the whole show an incredible, if not exhausting, multi-sensory experience.

Toward the end of the hour-and-fifteen-minute show, he asked everyone to look to the center of the room and walk to that point. Once we couldn’t walk any farther, he asked that we place our hands on the head of the person in front of us.

“Now,” he said, “with your hand on that person’s head, I want you all to lean one inch to the left.

“Notice how that was much more than one inch. Now, still holding onto the person’s head, lean one inch to the right.

“Walk slowly to the right. Keep moving to the right.

“Think about how you’re moving as an individual but also as a collective. Now slowly move to the left.

“Think about how hard it is to move exclusively as an individual and exclusively as a collective.”

Through interpretive dance sessions, hands-on exercises and a human spinal cord wrapping out the courtyard and back in through the front door, Deacon took us on a journey through his musical landscape, and reminded us that we can’t live without each other.

Deacon closed the set with three of the four “USA” movements on America. The video screen, a sheet hung behind him across the expanse of the stage, took us on a photo tour of the country he witnessed from a commercial bus line sometime before the release of Spiderman of the Rings – from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam.

When it was all over, he said thanks and reminded us to vote.