White Light/White North

Caribou & Fuck Buttons
10 April 2008
the Courtyard Cafe

review by Cristy Scoggins and William Gillespie


William: The venue’s website said the show would start at 8 p.m. The DJ on WPGU said 7:30. The poster said 9:00. The guy at the Illini Union Box Office said ’“Caribou... That’s a band, right?”

The opening act, Fuck Buttons, was for some reason not mentioned on the radio or in the university’s official promotional material.

So we arrived late. And as a result missed the best part of Fuck Button’s set, catching just the tail end. “The Fuck Buttons from London”—say that three times fast; it has only one guttural vowel sound. We heard only two songs we missed the names of, and so refer to them as the “Washing Machine Song” and the “Lawnmower Song.” We could not see the band through the crowd, and I pictured an electric guitar leaning against an amplifier turned up to eleven. A few adventurous fans were nodding along to the very loud grinding beat, though most stood around the stage like witnesses at a car crash staring petrified into the distortion. I sensed a Velvet Underground influence, or at least Metal Machine Music.

Well, we had been warned by a local music scene insider that at the Courtyard Cafe the promotion and sound system are sometimes handled by students. Not that U of I undergraduates are incompetent, mind you, they just study awful hard.

Cristy: Thanks to its heavy rotation on WPGU, “Melody Day” (a faithful homage to 1960s-inspired baroque psychedelia) sends me back to the gloomy winter of 2007. A sparkly highlight of an otherwise depressing season, the song inspired me to sit anxiously next to the radio for hours, waiting for my “Melody Day” fix. I longed to inject its 4 minutes of opiate-like pop bliss into my cold veins. 

Caribou and his rhythm section. W: The five-member band comprised a drummer (Ahmed Gallab, stading in for Brad Weber, who fractured his wrist); a bassist/vocalist (Andy Lloyd); a guitarist/keyboardist (Ryan Smith); a laptop; and Caribou (Dan Snaith, Ph.D.) on vocals, keyboard, guitar, second drum kit, flutophone, and some instrument I couldn’t see that sounded like glockenspiel. They sculpted polished icecaps of cool pop. I’ve heard it said that rock is music based less on melody and harmony and more on rhythm and timbre. If this is the case, then, by seldom sounding like a rock band, Caribou put on a great rock show. Despite conscious efforts to use feedback, the guitars usually sounded like mellotrons or synthesizers.Flutophone. Sometimes even the vocals were processed to sound like Laurie Anderson or Donald Duck. Despite the alien beauty of these sounds, two drummers ensured a driving delivery.

C: Caribou possesses a clear, smooth vocal style, similar to that of Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service, don’t you think?

Dan Snaith, Ph.D.

W: Captain Beefheart he ain’t. The first time I heard him on the radio, I thought he was a female singer. Though at this show it was hard to judge the singing and songwriting with the vocals so inadequately mixed.

Light show.C: Behind the band, trippy digital colors and shapes morphed across a large screen. Like Pink Floyd circa 1967, but with computers instead of colored oil—and without the LSD.

W: Not this reporter, anyway, but we can’t be sure about the band. The name Caribou was LSD-inspired, according to rock legend (or at least wikipedia).

C: I got my pop fix when Caribou began “Melody Day.” Although the other instruments struggled to be heard over the pounding drums, I chalked it up to unavoidable acoustic issues. “Melody Day” is a solid gem that could sound catchy in any venue.

W: The songs were pleasant, unfolding with reassuring consistency. There were few arresting surprises, or inexplicable changes. No soloing that I could see.

Guitar and bass.C: Is it just me, or is rock unbearably repetitive these days? A lot of new songs seem to go on forever, with no variation in rhythm or dynamics. Caribou can be repetitive, but they have a solid talent for catchy hooks that occasionally peek through layers and layers of keyboard and guitar. The melodies are like buried treasure: You have to dig around to find it—and your search might take awhile—but then your shovel clangs against something hard and shiny. The rewards are worth it.

W: Within the parameters of trancelike rhythms and arrested harmonic development, Caribou’s band created a variety of intriguing moods, all performed with sober professionalism.

C: I can’t wait to get home and put on the vinyl.

a reader responds

Hi. I am one of the people that run the sound at the courtyard and I worked that night. If you didn't know, they brought their own sound man. We did not know that until he arrived. We had a stage plot so we knew how to setup for the show and we had some of our best techs working. We were excited about the show and definitely prepared for it. Their sound man wasn't very kind to us the whole night and did not take kindly to our suggestions, even though he used all of our equipment and we let him do basically whatever he wanted. He was overdriving our amps causing the mains to cut out (our amps are not cheap and our head tech said he has never even heard of those amps overheating).

During Caribou's set one of the techs suggested to the sound man that the vocals and background electronics be turned up just a bit. The sound man freaked out. He repeatedly told him to "fuck off" and pushed him many times, almost knocking him off the platform. The police were called and the tech did not press charges. The sound man could have been arrested in the middle of the show, but the tech chose to have the police only question him afterwards and he confirmed everything that happened, claiming he "didn't know he couldn't push him (the tech)."

Dear Courtyard Tech,

We (the reviewers) were distressed to hear your story and are sorry on many levels. Most important, we apologize for any implication that the Courtyard Cafe sound people were lax in their duties at that show. After listening to Andorra our suspicions that the concert had an unflattering mix were confirmed by how pretty so many of the songs on that record are (especially "Sandy"!). Because the band seemed like nice guys, and because the music is so charming, it is awful to hear about the abusive, incompetent, violent sound guy you all had to put up with. Wow. Thanks very much for your post, the clarification, and a revealing glimpse into the invisible work that goes on to make a concert possible in this town. You too are rock stars. -Cristy and William


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