Latecomers to the Phoenix Concert Theatre for Deerhunter's highly anticipated and very sold-out return met a bizarre spectacle. Support act Marnie Stern, topless, was yammering away to the crowd, imploring Bradford Cox to join her onstage, and rallying for her bassist to "strip down to [his] tighty-whiteys," a request with which he grudgingly complied, smiling the hollow smile of a man asked to do this a little too often.
Stern, though, wasn't finished. When Cox eventually accepted her invitation to the stage, he entered in true Coxian fashion, booty-grinding with the ebullient virtuoso while scratching out glitter-riffs to set finale "The Crippled Jazzer," a captivating mess. To sign off they shared an extensive hug that emitted a certain sexual forcefield. Breaking apart, Cox mimed an unrepeatable facial act on Stern's haunches, before promptly toppling over his amp.
A compelling staple of the indie-rock landscape, Cox is quickly becoming an icon of our time. By being intelligent, charismatic, naturally quirky and spontaneously funny in interviews, he has ascended to being one of few remaining frontpeople who not only wants to be watched (which is increasingly rare), but knows how to be watchable. How exactly he keeps us enraptured takes some explaining.
Stalking onstage to rippling Halcyon Digest opener "Earthquake," a bewigged Cox cuts an insectile figure, legs glued in the great rock tradition with upper body writhing for iconoclasm and novelty. He fully exploits his towering height and Black Flag-shirted frame; likewise the breadth of the stage, leading our gaze to one corner and the next, striking a right-angled pose on the sound monitor while punctuating breathy lines with cool plosive vocal effects.
Crucial to Cox's allure is his physical appearance. The man's movement, like the band's music, feels purposeful, somewhat unusual, but never unnatural, rather tuned into some cosmic logic that eludes the wider species. Impressively clad in brown boots and rolled up skinny jeans, his length is topped by a jet-black, face-enveloping wig that has a fluffy skunk's-tail fringe. Cox's pentagonal light-blue guitar represents something subversive, a certain asymmetry. Boyishly he slings it on for Bowie-esque second track "Neon Junkyard," and only on "Desire Lines," the celestial vocal turn of guitarist Lockett Pundt, does Cox try to background himself. It's at this interval that, sensing an opening, Marnie Stern returns.
Her bravado is stunning. Buzzing about onstage, her faith in Cox's approval is heartening and authenticates their friendship, a complete physical mismatch that sees two of indie rock's eccentric personalities collide gracefully and fuse into one terrifyingly volatile entity. From the back of the stage Stern waves for attention, then moons elaborately and wiggles. Cox responds with hip-led thrusting in her direction, his guitar providing unsubtle phallic symbolism. A few songs later, she returns once more to twirl and flail to "Hazel St," a misty, Cryptograms-era gem that remains among the finest in Deerhunter's arsenal. What follows Stern's exit is pure erasure, three minutes of blissed, roiling ambience, rattled by one-note sub-bass that tremors along the upper chest, a physical connection to the music: it's not your ears but your ribcage holding rhythm.
Comprising Toronto's lank-haired and middle-aged and an absurd profusion of taller-than-usual men, the audience drinks it like ambrosia. "Nothing Ever Happened" gears into an 80-strong body-hurl, Cox prowling and dangling limbs over his frontal stage pool, glowing and messianic, before "Monomania" builds and blasts into oblivion with an abrading wash you can describe as literally brainshaking. Over-enthused, drummer Moses Archuleta bashes his tom at the song's climax; off the platform he topples, along with half his kit. Meanwhile, warring sirens ring out, blankets of noise, one thousand sirens all merging and interlocked, inducing subliminal panic in the audience. By the tenth minute, a blissful culmination of near-hallucinogenic aural distress, the sound now resembling satanic wind tumbling through mystical valleys, the band have departed the stage. It appears the sensible folk have taken to jamming fingers in ears (a few melodramatic sorts are actually clutching heads in hands), while the rest of us grimace and close our eyes and seek some kind of transcendence.
Oblivious to their sonic terrorism, the band return, ploughing into another ear-needling wash, now backed by tribal drum smacks. In the worshipful front-row throng, two hands raised to Cox's leering frame make contact and are clutched in his, and the touched couple share a look that says: Going deaf? OK, but give us to the end of the song.