As promised, Dan Bejar had given up guitar. But truly surprising was that, drunk, sleepy or half-drunk and half-sleepy beneath the Doug Fir Lounge’s lights, he had also given up leading Destroyer. About a third of the way through their first song, the delectable, meandering “Chinatown,” it was apparent Bejar, the band’s sole permanent member, was slightly unsure of what to do. Backed by an eight-piece “orchestra” – taking up in various intervals two guitars, bass, drums, saxophone, beer and flute, trumpet, percussion, keys and backing vocal duties – and closed in on all sides by wood panels and a sold-out crowd, slurring eyeglasses pressed against the stage, he fell into tapping the tambourine, eyes closed shut against the din and the audience like a fully maned newborn in a blue jean jacket.
It was during “Blue Eyes” that Bejar first opened his own, nursing a beer between songs and between verses – between any two points in time not requiring him to deliver his trademark half-serious cadence tilted halfway between the simply stated and the nasally sung. “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane,” off 2004’s Your Blues, was presented deconstructed and funky, with extra room for sax in the style of the Notorious Lightning and Other Works EP that Destroyer recorded with Frog Eyes as the backing band. The packed-tight crowd, presumably a mix of veteran fans and curious new converts, those primarily drawn by this year’s stellar yacht-rock monolith Kaputt, were appreciative of the deepish cut. But how prescient the lyrics were, that Bejar himself, crouching low on the stage every few moments, would sing, “It’s gonna take an airplane/ To get me off the ground.”
As venues go, the Doug Fir is intimate if cramped. Perfect for a four- or five-piece group, Destroyer’s sprawling roster on this tour proved the place’s sound system insufficient. In “Downtown,” the deeply thumping bass, synth and soaring vocals were fighting for life against the trumpet and sax, which registered in parts as high squeals unrecognizably rending the air above the audience. Directly following, Bejar’s first words were, simply, “Thanks.” Kaputt’s title track, following a brutally tasty, audience-unhinging rendition of “Savage Night at the Opera” and followed by a subdued “Was’sup?” from the sauced singer, was breezed over almost casually in spite of the clear enthusiasm for it from those assembled, though in both the guitar work was exceptional.
Two from 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies were next up, a one-two punch ending with perennial live favorite “Painter in Your Pocket,” the latter which demanded Bejar shrug off his fatigued demeanor, if even for a short while. But the former, “3000 Flowers,” left at least one member of the crowd pining for “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point” or “Watercolours Into the Ocean,” not least of which because Bejar remained chained to a lyrics sheet for almost all of “3000 Flowers,” a slightly understandable yet undeniably disappointing gesture given the intricate, oblique lyrical stylings he’s most fond of – and famed for.
The dedicated and talented saxophonist picking up flute duties, Kaputt masterstroke “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” was the highlight, and each of the eight-minute track’s two large lyrical breaks left Bejar free to focus on his beer while the crowd devoured the imagery, rhythm and crackling one-liners ornamenting it, spitting many of them back at the band with hands raised high. Intensely partisan, or maybe just besotted like he was, the crowd hissed when Bejar announced prior to a sing-along “Song for America” that it’d be the last. Gone without a bow, a wave or a word, but returning almost immediately to direct the band through an encore of “Bay of Pigs,” he seemed livened if surprised and embarrassed by the enthusiastic response emanating from below and in front of him, belied by the energy added to his plea from that tune, “You’ve got to stop calling me honey.” The audience’s applause promised, “Never!”, but still both band and audience turned their backs and left the building, or at least the basement level lounge.
Inclined more to swigs of beer than banter, Bejar let his eight compatriots do most of the grunt work throughout Destroyer’s refined but ultimately too-short set, taking almost literally his own line from “Savage Night,” the directive to “Just set the loop/ And then go wild.” While the full band he brought with him in tow to Portland on the last night of winter may have functioned musically as a complex Mechanical Turk, fully and autonomously fleshing out the bones of Bejar’s meticulously-crafted melodies and arrangements, he neglected the axiom’s second half. Rather than go wild, he gathered together a group of musicians who can play his music so well it doesn’t matter if he’s drunk while they do it. Impressive enough itself.