Dirty Projectors/Polar Bear/A Mid-Summer Night At The Mint Lounge

A balmy, sun streaked Manchester is what greeted Dirty Projectors, on their inaugural trip to the city, to perform. The good thing about Manchester is that it looks its self in grey slate sky’s yet sparkles when the sunshines. It’s a rare gift. Manchester is built for the rain, everything feels in sync when you walk through Albert Sq and its raining. But when the sun does shine and this increasingly glass city does sparkle, it jumps starts the mind, you get a different angle, a different feel, an alternate take.

Basically I was edging towards a good mood as I approached the Mint Lounge, and the musical feast on offer, did little to dint my sunny disposition. In fact it’s very hard to be objective about Dirty Projectors, a band that has recently collaborated with Talking Heads totem and alternative music deity David Byrne, when the preceding band was so good.

Polar Bear, who shared the bill with the Projectors, are a tight post jazz group led by Seb Rochford, who’s extraordinary frizzy hairstyle deserves a paragraph in itself . They will probably never get anywhere near the commercial success that could await the Projectors, but they impressed me.

The outfit is led, interestingly by two saxophone players, an instrument that is usually relegated to second in command in jazz groups who favour the piano or trumpet as a lead. The saxophone, I believe, harbours the ultimate jazz sound, much mellower than the piercing noise of a trumpet, the oaky waling sax tone epitomizes jazz cool.  The two saxophonists were backed by Rochford on drums, double bass, guitar, synthesiser, and in what is the most bizarre instrument to be added to a line-up since the 13th Floor Elevators electric jug, the high pitched squeaks of a pink balloon, together creating an impressive and balanced jazz grove.

Frankly if I were in Dirty Projectors, I would be leaving nasty notes in Rochford’s lunch box for so overwhelmingly upstaging them. But leaving aside my unabashed love for the jazzsters, Dirty Projectors, were well..okay.  I was waiting for them to name drop Mr Byrne really, in a “oh by the way moment.”  There wasn’t one, thankfully, but they did play ‘Knotty Pine’ as an encore, the song they put together with him for the 4AD charity double album Dark Was The Night. It’s a lovely eccentric tune that deserved the cheers it received.

But the rest of the set, plucked mainly from the bands new album Bitte Orca was a little lacklustre. I was briefly distracted, by a girl who I had struck up a conversation with, we had got past the usual pleasantries of home town, alma mater  etc and had moved on to a game of musical one-upmanship, a kind of I’ve been listening to Andalusian hip hop, countered by…ah but I’ve been listening to Mongolian free form jazz..that kind of thing without the comic exaggeration. Finally I threw in “of course…my ultimate favourite is Scott Walker”. Her response “I don’t really like him..too many strings”. The conversation died. She may as well have grown a third eye.

The music plodded along during this exchange, the sound of talented musicians coasting, but as the set continued towards it’s ‘Knotty Pine’ conclusion, things did improve slightly, when the group tackled some of the songs of their 2007 album Rise Above. The album was the brainchild of Dave Longstreth, the Brooklyn based groups self styled “musical director” and involved him “re-imagining” from memory,  punk group Black Flag’s album “Damaged”. Did any of the versions match the intensity of Black Flags original…not really….in fact it was like listening to the sound a fire makes after you pour cold water over it, but the tunes were innovative if a little to laid back.

Apparently the album versions contain “flute solos, choir vocals, string sections, brief forays into Latin, jaw-dropping musicianship and double to quadruple track lengths”….which has me very interested. The pared down versions I heard at the Mint Lounge reflected the typical cross-purpose sound of the group, the harsh vocals of Dave Longstreth twinned with the sugary, sweetness and light vocals of Amber Coffman. Backed by a throbbing lead guitar which is juxtaposed with a folksy keyboard style.  An open ended sound which is covered with electronic niceties. All good, musically proficient, but lacking the necessary fire.

In many ways Polar Bear should have headed the bill, but I don’t think “musical director” Dave Longstreth would take very kindly to that notion, in fact he would probably leave something much worse in Rochford’s lunch box than a nasty note and given he’s an ex Yale student, it would probably be something along the lines of…..a rotten fig.

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