As Grizzly Bear glided through “Adelma,” an ambient interlude from their new album, Shields, the band’s rainbow-hued stage lights faded to black. Light bulbs flickered in glass jars, drifting above the quintet’s silhouettes, while multi-instrumentalist Chris Taylor bent to his clarinet, conjuring sheets of noise that filled Knoxville’s Tennessee Theatre with eerie magic. Later on, during the quietest expanses of “Lullabye,” singer Ed Droste toyed with an auto-harp while drummer Chris Bear tapped out melodies on a xylophone.
In the school of modern indie rock, Grizzly Bear are the artsy valedictorians. At the regal Tennessee Theatre, they were on their best behavior, effortlessly maneuvering through a set list heavy on new material and early fan-favorite anthems.
After a blaring, psychedelic opening set from New Zealand’s Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Grizzly Bear strode onstage to deafening roars. “This is our first show on our U.S. tour,” Droste noted, name-dropping their buddies Beach House, who played a triumphant set two days prior at the Bijou Theatre across the street. “Knoxville, represent!” he shouted, before launching into “Speak in Rounds,” a simmering new tune that built to an explosive climax. Dressed in a sharp white suit, co-frontman Daniel Rossen led the band with his furious guitar strumming, as dizzying lights sprayed across the stage.
This was Grizzly Bear’s third day in Knoxville, after a weekend of rehearsing and preparing their intricate lighting effects. “We’ve neglected Tennessee long enough,” Droste said with a laugh before referencing Tomato Head (a popular local pizzeria), teasing about the city’s obsession with college football and gazing in awe at the theater’s ornate expanses. “You guys are lucky here – this place is amazing!”
In fact, the Tennessee Theatre, with its domed ceilings, red curtains and detailed wall fixtures, is one of the American South’s most visually stunning venues – a perfect home for Grizzly Bear’s carefully crafted art-pop.
The set list was crammed with new material – eight out of Shields‘ 10 tracks were represented, most of which had never been played live. But barring a couple of minor technical glitches, the mood was celebratory, with the crowd embracing even the most experimental dirges: During the intimate “Shift,” a small pocket of hipsters blissfully swayed to and fro, transforming the theater into an enraptured cathedral. Never has an audience cheered with such passion for a round of band whistling.
Ultimately, though, the band’s tried-and-true material earned the evening’s wildest applause. An early highlight was “Cheerleader,” from the 2009 breakout Veckatimest: Droste snapped his fingers and grooved charmingly behind his synth, while the band’s interweaving vocal harmonies bounced off the walls in cavernous ripples. “Two Weeks” was a reliable show-stopper, the quintet harmonizing wordless refrains over sugary keys played by Rossen and new touring member Aaron Arntz.
On album, Grizzly Bear’s music is so smooth, so refined, it’s easy to get lost in the sonic details and overlook the deft musicianship. No such trouble in Knoxville: Taylor traded out instruments with such frequency (moving from sax to clarinet to bass guitar, often within the same song), he almost needed a set list just for his gear shifts. Meanwhile, the band tag-teamed lead vocals and harmonies with such precision, it was often difficult to tell who was singing what. Even during the acoustic singalong encore of “All We Ask,” where Droste and Taylor harmonized around a single mic, the audience was silenced to a reverent hush.
Toward the end of the evening, after a drunken fan let loose with a string of infectious obscenities, Taylor mock-scolded the rowdiness, adding between laughs, “You’re supposed to be in church today!” Judging by the crowd’s collective reverence, he was probably right.
Grizzly Bear’s set list:
“Speak in Rounds”
“A Simple Answer”
“While You Wait”
“On a Neck, On a Spit”
“Sun in Your Eyes”
“All We Ask” (acoustic)