DIIV Reminds Boston Audience How To Enjoy Live Music

(Picture from SPIN.com at Governor’s Ball)

Concertgoers at DIIV’s June 7th show at the Sinclair in Boston got several shows for the price of one – not that they deserved it. An opener, a standup act, a story of inner strength and persistence, a tragedy, and finally, the underdog’s victory. In this mood-swing-ridden identity crisis of a show, DIIV played cleanly to a quasi-engaged audience until Zachary Cole Smith, dragged through the mud, hit a wall. Only once his blatant expressions of exasperation reached a cringeworthy height (three songs from the end of the show!) did the audience remember what they were there for, spurring a sudden turnaround through the blunt but grateful encore. I hope I get a chance to see this band again in a more supportive space, because I do believe they are an incredible collective with untouchable emotional depth.

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(Picture by @cody_sanz in Austin, TX)

Awkward Ambience

After a surprisingly short setup following the openers, the Paranoids, DIIV meandered unceremoniously onstage. Smith announced “an old song”, and the band opened with a track off Oshin. Halfway through the first song, I noticed how sober I was, which is an odd thing for me to be noticing, considering that I’m almost always sober. DIIV’s bio on venue websites describes the sound as,  “one part THC and two parts MDMA,” a beautiful explanation for why I like to listen sprawled out in the dark. Standing at a respectful distance from every other barely-swaying individual in a room with half-assed lighting had the opposite of that effect. I usually love the Sinclair, but Smith had to ask at least twice for the lights to be turned down. More importantly than annoying lighting, eavesdropping between sets told me that a large portion of the audience was completely unfamiliar with the band, accompanying friends who were too self conscious to go alone. These flops affected the usual spacey ambiance of the music significantly, although, of course, DIIV does not sound exactly as saturated live as in the studio.

Technical Performance

Onstage, DIIV plays tightly and energetically. One thing I did miss from the studio sound is the richness of the bass, which didn’t come through the mix quite so assertively onstage. I also expected to miss the vocals ultra-soaked in reverb, but was surprised to find out that I like Smith’s voice live and not drowning in effects. It also loses what little edge it had in the studio, but comes through very clear and sweet. Before I realized how unwilling the audience was to warm up, I was looking for reasons in the performance itself for the stiffness. I felt that they might have rushed the tempo slightly, but by the time they played “Oshin (Subsume)” about halfway through the set, not only was I sure they were playing at just the right speed, I was positive the audience was just too far disconnected. Before the crowd finally picked up, I found the most value in physically seeing the parts split up by person, from one huge ambient mix to five individual musicians. DIIV’s best work features characteristically strong distinctions between melodies, riffs, vamps, and more, so I was interested to see that highlighted in a live setting.

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(Picture by @NME)

Play by play…(what really went wrong, and finally right)

Things started out well between the audience and the band. Smith is funny and deadpan in a way that really works onstage as casual banter. He surprised me by answering inevitable shouted requests in the beginning of the show right away, with genuine apology in his voice, saying  they would not play “Valentine” because he “forgot how.” Two songs later, Smith asked for the first time for requests and the same audience member yelled “Valentine” again, to which Smith laughed and dramatically protested, “wha– I already told you! We won’t play…fucking Valentine! That’s it, we’re done.” But the line quickly blurred between jokes and serious exasperation as Smith attempted to engage the audience and became more and more exhausted by the half-hearted response. Only a few songs in, he paused during tuning to ask the audience to borrow an inhaler. No one stepped forward. He soldiered on. He asked again two songs later. Kept going. Said he might have to take a break. Sat down for a few seconds. Finished a song and pantomimed a gun to the head. Two girls in the front who stuck out in their loud enthusiasm for keyboardist and guitarist Colin Caulfield (who is, admittedly, extremely adorable) received a tired eye roll from Smith accompanied by a muttered request to “tone it down”. Noticing the awkward space I was feeling in the crowd, Smith took the last of his many requests, and announced they’d be playing four more songs, because “you all look so bored,” and then leaving. “I just wanna go home,” he said. “I’m bad at touring. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. Trust me, I like it more than you do right now.” One song later: “I lied, we’re only doing three. You know, you can dance if you want, jump around a little.” A few laughs. “Or, you know, when we play a song, you can clap. It’s like, oh, they played this song, which is what I came here to see them do…

Something clicked. While the band played “Dust”, someone in the crowd started a mosh pit. Someone was picked up and passed up to the stage, which he dove off of twice. What started as a hesitant but earnest effort at audience enthusiasm unfolded into a real connection. At the end of four minutes, Smith smiled behind the microphone. “Thank you,” he glowed, “that really means a lot to me.” He lifted his oversized glasses to wipe away sweat or tears from both eyes with with thumbs. I’m not sure which one I hope it was. Humbled, but rejuvenated, the audience continued the mosh pit until the end of the set. Smith unabashedly assured us they’d be right back for an encore if we cheered for a minute while they walked offstage. After the promised one minute, DIIV walked beaming back onstage and played another two songs, both audience requests. While I wish it had been a great show from the beginning, and I felt awful watching such a shitty event unfold, I think the audience really learned something about the necessity of active participation in live music, which is something I believe everyone should learn to value. As the band walked off, Ben Newman tossed his drumsticks straight at my feet, where my hand met someone else’s reaching for one. We held eye contact for a second and I raised my eyebrows. He told me he really loved the band and I let go, much happier to hear that than I ever would have been with a drumstick.

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