Beach House lets its music do the talking

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Do you remember the museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) where Sloane and Ferris kiss, while Cameron is off by himself, getting lost in a Seurat painting? There’s no dialogue. Just a particularly contemplative Dream Academy cover of a Smiths song, the museum awash in blue light. It’s a quiet, slow spot in the movie, but it had a big impact – partly because it was so simply done.

There was a moment like that at Beach House’s sold-out show at the Fox Theater in Oakland on Friday. Maybe a few moments.

The dream pop duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally is all for simplicity – they’ve kept to the same musical palette for the whole of their career, restricting themselves to a hazy organ, shoegaze-y electric guitar, tom-tomming drums, and Legrand’s androgynous, smoke-and-honey voice. But they use these things to great dramatic impact – moody, contemplative melodies give way to lush, hope-filled soundscapes, the contrast between the two making for emotional, intimate moments.  It’s slow music, carefully constructed, and sometimes drone-y, tight pop melodies notwithstanding; to be honest I wasn’t sure that I’d stay entertained, watching them for an entire set.

But the duo has toured extensively for the past few years, and the show was pretty smooth, the music confidently played, and despite their introverted approach to showmanship, there was enough theatrics to keep things moving, relying on simple changes to the stage, to their body language, to keep things interesting.
Legrand, her face hidden behind a birds-nest tangle of hair, was a brooding presence onstage. Her voice soared, but she never moved from behind the keyboard, her fingers locked to it even as she was sometimes seized by fits of headbanging. Her stillness, her unique voice, the complete lack of eye contact made her mesmerizing, the focal point of the stage. Meanwhile, guitarist Alex Scally didn't say anything at all to the crowd and bounced in his seat, reminding me of a Muppet-like character.

Their stage set up was raw, black and white striped panels and stark white lights. But this slowly developed as the show progressed, into floods of deep red and blue color, constellation-like scatterings of twinkling lights — each minimalist change well-timed, as leisurely as Scally’s delicate guitar playing. And they were long into their set before any film was introduced, or strobes, or multi-colored lights.

When I say long into the set, I do mean long – they played for an hour and a half. Legrand’s voice almost tireless, save for a few glitches here and there – a slightly flat harmony, a catch in her throat. Almost every song drew a yell from the crowd as they stuck to their poppier, upbeat songs, drawing mainly from their most recent, and most successful albums – Teen Dream, and Bloom.

But they did toss out a Scooby snack for the die hards —  “Auburn and Ivory” from their first, self-titled album. Legrand said they hadn’t played it in four years, but they did so admirably, the guitar twirling around the steady waltz of Legrand’s organ like a one twirls a finger in their hair.

They played well to their sold out crowd, maintaining their shy distance, yet giving us what we wanted.

Opener: Dustin Wong, formerly of Ponytail, was rad. He had a lot in common with Beach House, preferring a limited palette of instruments as well – in his case, a guitar and scads of pedals. Layering guitar line over guitar line until the piece hit the sublime chaos of a fugue, Wong didn’t talk much to the audience at all, save for his facial expressions as he played. The two acts together made for a night of quiet people who wanted the work to speak for itself.

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