Beak> is a no-frills band with absolutely nothing to prove.
Partway through their Star Theater performance, Beak> drummer Geoff Barrow noted how many great bands had played in Portland over the long holiday weekend: the city hosted such acts as Shellac, Kikagaku Moyo, A Place To Bury Strangers, Thee Oh Sees and roughly a dozen more guitar-driven rock bands. It felt like a reminder of how good Portland has it sometimes, which was a useful fact when thinking about why the Star Theater wasn’t packed to the gills. Roughly 150 people turned out for Barrow’s krautrock-centric three-piece, and while that sounds paltry, the city’s embarrassment of live music riches – combined with the fact that it was a Monday night – made this kind of turnout unsurprising. In the words of Denis, the kind and grumpy Brit who works the box office at Star Theater, “I think some people just didn’t know what they were looking at.”
Their loss was our gain. Despite being far less chaotic than many of the shows that took place over the weekend, you’d be hard pressed to find a better display of musicianship than a Beak> performance. The three band members – Barrow, bassist Billy Fuller (who performed sitting down) and guitarist/electronic wizard Will Young – form a ludicrously tight unit, made even better by their unassuming demeanor. With Young a mostly quiet partner, between songs his mates joked with each other and addressed men in the crowd who were yelling incomprehensible things at them. These are three middle-aged dudes who like playing music together, and are remarkably talented and well-loved. Barrow and Fuller are both hypnotic performers, easy to get lost watching. Young, too, was tight as hell, filling in the gaps left by the drum and bass – his work replicating the weirder noises of their music was one of the best parts of seeing the band live.
The problem with the show wasn’t immediately apparent. Opening with the first two tracks of this year’s >>>, “The Brazilian” and “Brean Down” sounded pristine, reminding you that this band started as an improvised project, presented as a no-airbrush portrait of the musicians’ creative processes. >> slow-burner “Eggdog” maintained its weird trajectory, with its unsettling vocals masterfully-rendered in the real world (Barrow controlled the vocal effects with a small panel next to his drumkit).
What became obvious as the show progressed was that the live renditions lacked the organic feel of their recorded counterparts, simply because they sound more or less the same. >>> crown jewel “Allé Sauvage” and bizarro >> jam “Wulfstan II” provided the illusion of wandering by virtue of their meandering nature, but still played too close to the script. While it’s fulfilling to hear these songs live, it’s disappointing that one could simply listen to the albums and get an almost identical (if far less intimate) experience.
“This is our pretend last song,” Barrow said, addressing the silliness of “encores” being built into performances, thus robbing them of any spontaneity before launching into “When We Fall.” They’d go on to play “Kenn” and >>’s classic “Blagdon Lake,” but it felt refreshing to have a band create a line of demarcation in their set, while shrugging off the spectacle of saying goodnight and coming back to a cheering crowd. It was appropriate: Beak> is a no-frills band with absolutely nothing to prove, who seem actively disinterested in anything other than making great music and, every once in a while, playing it for a bunch of adoring fans. The fact that they’re the kind of band who wants to avoid the empty gesture is part of the reason fans love them in the first place.