David Bazan Does Denver
I walked around for weeks excited to see David Bazan. Everyone I happened across suffered the question of if they knew Pedro the Lion, and everyone ultimately disappointed the asker because they did not. I had hoped to invite them along, and get my chance to crow. But for whatever reason it seems Pedro the Lion didn’t quite catch on in Denver—at least not among the people I asked. No one I asked had an inkling of who they were. Thankfully, this response was not that of Denver as a whole.
When I arrived at the Hi Dive last week, it appeared the word had somehow gotten out. Parting the curtain of smokers outside the entrance, I saw the show was sold out before it even started. Entering, the night looked even better: the the Hi Dive was packed already, in spite of an opener that no one had heard of. Hipsters shouldered in wall-to-wall swilling age-inappropriate cans of shitty Schlitz, and I could almost swear that catching eyes in the crowd brought are flashes of pride and well-tamped-down excitement for the coming of hipster god.
I may have skipped an important fact already, which is to mention that this show is once-in-a-lifetime. Pedro the Lion broke up in 2006. When David Bazan and TW Walsh went their separate ways after 11 years, it meant you couldn’t see Pedro songs played live anymore, let alone see an album played start to finish. Which reminds me that I also forgot to mention that this is the goal for this entire evening. This entire tour is a celebration of the 10 year anniversary of the release of Pedro the Lion’s album Control. While Walsh would be absent, key member David Bazan promised to belt out his heartbroken lyrics with the guts of a man 10 years younger.
But life would have us wait. Specifically, wait to listen to Bloomington-based duo “Stagnant Pools” muddle and tap out slow beats on a rattly snare. I should probably go easy on the boys—and I do say that intentionally since they barely look old enough to be in a bar. They were given accolades by Bazan (which is like Kobe Bryant telling you he likes your moves), and certainly hinted during their set that they might know what they’re doing. But all in all, their sound left something to be desired (or maybe, everything to be desired). Give them a listen on their bandcamp and decide for yourself. It’s tough to judge in person, that entire room was really only waiting for their set to be over anyway.
By the time the opener finished and Bazan was ready to play, I was reminded of just how peculiar the Hi Dive is as a venue. To start his set, Bazan had to thread himself through the crowd from the back of the room with drum and bass cohorts in tow (the “dressing rooms” are in the rear of the venue). I can’t say this made for a flashy entrance, but like everything else about the Hi-Dive it certainly built that certain community spirit that makes you feel you’re experiencing something with the artists, rather than from them. As a general rule, if you want to see a band close-up that you have no reason to see so intimately, you should go to the Hi Dive.
To the near-squealing delight of the crowd, a balding Bazan takes the mic in his hand. He strums with no introduction and leads with the opening track from Control. He plays two songs afterward before even addressing the crowd—usually a sure sign that the artist is a dick. But Bazan is quiet, humble, and strangely respectful to his audience. He stops mid-way through Control and explains that they’re going to stop the album there and play “a bunch more songs for you” before finishing off the record. In the same pause he asks the audience if there are any questions, and patiently answers the questions the audience actually throws to him. Someone asks how it feels to play these old songs again, and whether it is hard to “feel them”. Bazan gives the only good answer I’ve ever heard, which is “My job with all my material is to find an entry point to make it still relevant to myself, and to the audience.” He talks about how he won’t be playing anything off of Pedro’s Whole EP, because he doesn’t believe the things on that record anymore, nor does he think that doing heroin is a good idea any longer.
Questions ended, David and his Bazan Band mates launch into songs that span the Pedro discography. Repeatedly, Bazan flinches the left side of his face as he sings in unconscious response to the lyrics that he’s surely sung hundreds of times before. Most of his set is played with eyes closed, but you can’t help but notice this climb of his cheek in concert with a plummeting eyebrow. It seems what he said true, that he really does find an emotional point of access to these songs over a decade old, no matter how many times they are sung on stage. Maybe more surprising is just how well it all connects. Admittedly that crowd was on the verge of thrill by just being in the same room as David Bazan, but even to the objective observer the sound was fantastic. The iconic Pedro guitar tones are all present, as are the over-melodic bass lines completing every one of Bazan’s chords. With the little added roughness in his voice when he really reaches for it, I might even say that Pedro the Lion songs sounds better live than on the record. What a rare thing in this time when we expect concerts to be someone playing the songs we know just how we remember them but slightly worse.
Reaching the end of the set, Bazan takes questions one more time and finally acknowledges the frantic screaming of a girl in the front row. I couldn’t catch what the song title was, but she had been begging for something all night. Pointing her out to the rest of the audience, Bazan told the room just how hard she had been working to hear that one song. But rather than following through, or tearing her apart like many artists would, he complimented her on her perseverance but remained resolute.. Laughing, he said “If there was a world in which we were going to play that song, you would have convinced us.” At the same time, he turned down requests for more songs from The Only Reason I Feel Secure, noting that they played two the night before, one that night, and would be playing more in the future—just not at this show.
I don’t know how he did it, addressing a demanding crowd with appellations of “sir” and “ma’am” and refusing quietly what they asked—not out of meanness or triviality, but just because he wasn’t going to do what they wanted. I don’t think I’ve ever heard people be turned down so nicely, in any setting. And by the end of the evening, when the final song of the evening played, the crowd cheered respectfully and parted for Bazan to walk back to the dressing room from which to never emerge. As soon as the last note was played, that night was over because he said it was over. And frankly, I think the crowd all loved this man too much to beg him for more.
There’s a disappointment that usually comes with seeing a band live. It can be from their attitudes, their look, the songs they play or the length of sets or silence in between. But with David Bazan, even put in direct conflict with him (i.e. having their songs rejected) could not have left any happier. Maybe it was the proximity of the Hi Dive, or the point Bazan is at in his career, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show so honest and warm. The music was fantastic, and the mood sublime. And if I don’t ever see another concert quite like this one, I think the night might be enough for me.