photos by Dan Muller
review by Jim Beckmann
Lately, some critics haven’t been very kind to Ghostland Observatory. Sure, Pitchfork’s remark about the Austin band’s “Daft Punk-for-frat-boys schtick” in its review of Robotique Majestique (1 ½ stars) is within keeping of the site’s hipper-than-thou milieu (although I thought Daft Punk was for frat boys), but when Seattle’s own independent voice The Stranger tries to out-Pitchfork Pitchfork (½ star and a derisive “bell curve” comment), the whole thing reads more like sour grapes at the band’s success. Regardless, after quickly selling out two nights at the Showbox at the Market, Ghostland Observatory played to the normal distribution of Seattle’s fandom and proved how skewed the critics’ opinions could be.
Detractors of the band’s recorded music are missing the point: Ghostland Observatory is a meant to be witnessed live. Lead vocalist Aaron Behrens’ persona amalgamates Freddy Mercury’s and Mick Jagger’s onstage cockery, their crowing and strutting, which are only hinted at on album. While both Queen and The Stones released some impressive studio work, their shows were more explosive. And so with Ghostland Observatory. Just ask the ecstatic crowds the Showbox, who I doubt would give a second thought at that moment to getting lumped in with the implied middle state doltish mediocrity suggested by The Stranger’s review. They were too caught up in Thomas Turner’s pulsating beats and Behrens’ rhythmic chainsaw guitar to intellectualize. They were there to groove.
Try as they might, the crowd could not collapse the venue’s floorboards any more than they could pull the ceiling down with their hands, no matter how hard they danced or how high they thrust their arms in the air. Behrens played them like another instrument, leaning into front rows, touching hands, swinging from one end of the stage to the other. Meanwhile, Turner, the cloaked wizard of the knobs, remained bent over his equipment most of the time and nodding to the beat. He’s the perfect straightman to Behrens’ onstage athletics — that is, until he slides behind the drum kit and lets loose. It’s like when one of those living human statues you’ve been idly staring at while enjoying a corndog at a festival suddenly springs to life. It’s no less a performance.
The dramatic light show is an essential part of Ghostland Observatory’s live shows. Sure, it’s the visual equivalent of a Pink Floyd laser show, but it’s old school without the irony — just as the band’s supposedly uncool electronic blips hearken back to dual-digit low-bit technology. Rather than seeming cheesy, the lasers sliced sharply through the fog-dense air, rotating, sweeping quickly, then stopping a moment before exploding outward and upward again in sync with the beat. For a moment, it looked as if the beams might lop off Behrens’ long swinging braids. I caught myself ducking more than once.
Recent songs “Heavy Heart” and “Dancing On My Grave” drew as much if not more enthusiastic applause from the all-ages crowd as classics “Sad Sad City” and “Move With Your Lover.” Even the moodier songs, the ones less frenetic and less falsetto-laden, kept the audience in thrall. Throughout the main set, Behrens kept his banter to a minimum, but clearly he reveled in audience’s enthusiasm and during the encore thanked the Seattle fans for their enduring support, suggesting that the city was his second home. The locals obviously appreciated the reciprocated love and cheered the duo offstage. As the overheads turned on, the sweaty, weary crowd headed home fulfilled and oblivious to — or uncaring of — their unhipness. Rock on, sheep, rock on!