REVIEW: Grizzly Bear w/ serpentwithfeet at House of Blues (11/1)

On November 1, Grizzly Bear played their first Boston show in four years at House of Blues to promote their latest LP, Painted Ruins. This was the first time the Brooklyn-based band has played Boston since 2012, when they took up residence at the Orpheum Theater to promote their 2012 release Shields, and diehard Boston fans were eager to hear what they might bring.

Opening the show was relative newcomer serpentwithfeet, a one-man act who held his own presenting an unconventional though riveting performance. Improvising between and during his songs and with a penchant for talk-singing, he was able to lighten the mood with laughter and then surprise guests with his powerful voice, most notably during his final song “four ethers.”

The unconventional opener heightened the anticipation for the headlining act, whose fifth studio album was released to highly favorable reviews, praised for maintaining their trademark bittersweet sound but evolving as all good bands tend to. The album is characterized by its expansive, at times somber, sonic quality. Boston’s House of Blues tends to be a raucous venue for live music, but the cavernous auditorium was fitting for the dulcet tones of co-vocalists Daniel Rossen and Ed Droste to overwhelm the space.

The stage was modestly decorated with a translucent textured fabric, draped on both sides and hung to reflect the stage lights. As one fan in the crowd described it: “Dirty laundry?” though they might have been going for something more high-brow than that. The veils created a feeling of otherworldliness, as if to be peered through but still impenetrable. Admittedly not as exciting as some stage designs, it was effective in its simplicity.

The ability of the two veteran vocalists to harmonize and weave their voices was most apparent during Ruins track ‘Neighbors.’ In fact, the entire band has a knack for harmonizing and doing it well, as heard in their performance of ‘Sleeping Ute.’ A New Yorker article from several years ago compared the quartet to a boy’s choir– and the comparison isn’t far off. Grizzly Bear’s ability to combine that sort of chamber pop and carefully-composed art rock has become their signature style and regularly copied by newcomers to the scene.

Droste’s vocals were the most memorable part of the show, expressing all the anguish and longing Grizzly Bear’s lyrics often betray. Even during upbeat songs like ‘Two Weeks,’ the way Droste sings, “Would you always/Maybe sometimes/Make it easy?/Take your time,” makes you feel like crying with relief.

The skills of Chris Taylor, bassist, saxophonist, flutist, etc. and Chris Bear, drummer and percussionist, should not be understated. Bear’s ability to end a song in perfectly executed discordance was on display at the end of ‘Yet Again’ and ‘Fine For Now,’ with immersive drumming you could feel in your bones. Taylor was the multi-instrumentalist of the night, flawlessly switching between playing the saxophone, keyboard, and clarinet in addition to his usual bass guitar.

The highlight of the night was in their final encore song “Sun In Your Eyes,” a bombastic six-minute force that slowly crescendos upward to reach its peak and crash right down, trumpets and all, creating a catharsis the entire crowd was able to ride out together. At their fifth album, the band clearly has mastered their art and it is a massive joy to experience. It’s safe to say the diehards slept soundly that night.