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The 'effortless perfection' of Destroyer at Cat's Cradle

concert review

Led by frontman Dan Bejar, Destroyer visited Cat's Cradle in Carrboro on the heels of last year's album "ken."
Led by frontman Dan Bejar, Destroyer visited Cat's Cradle in Carrboro on the heels of last year's album "ken."

The first thing you notice about Dan Bejar, lead singer and songwriter of Destroyer, is that he doesn’t look at the crowd very much when performing live. He crouches near the microphone, taking swigs of various alcoholic beverages with his eyes closed and head lowered. When he rises, he alternates between using the microphone stand as a cane and turning his back to the crowd, slapping his tambourine vigorously. The other members of the band are slightly more present, but their focus is on the music. The trumpet player, fully clad in a black suit, looks down and fiddles with his trumpet when he’s not nailing high notes and improvising spectacularly between songs. The two guitarists and the keyboardist look either at each other or at Bejar’s hazy movements. Hilariously enough, all of them have various beverages they consume as the night goes on. The stage is littered with cups, nothing feels normal and the crowd is utterly transfixed. This is the setting of a Destroyer concert, as I found to my delight last Tuesday.

Destroyer, a Vancouver-based indie rock band, has developed a loyal following after over 17 years of recording. The band has especially grown into prominence since the breakout success of its 2011 album “Kaputt,” which was lauded by critics across the country and short-listed for the Polaris Prize. The crowd at Cat’s Cradle reflected this trajectory, a group that consisted primarily of devoted 30-somethings who knew every song Dan played by the opening guitar strum. For over 75 minutes, we watched as Bejar played through the majority of their newest album “ken,” joined by a few favorites from his other stellar albums.

Mega Bog, a jazzy art-rock project fronted by Erin Birgy, opened for Destroyer. The unique instrumentation and quirky, lilted vocals were initially intriguing, but the songs often felt aimless and lacked the sharpness necessary to keep me fully engaged. Her surprisingly dark vocals were broken by interesting social commentary and self-deprecating humor between song switches. She urged us all to come closer to help her stay warm, and laughed at her own suggestion that we would be sad to see her leave. Once the group finally left (Erin’s preferred method of exit was through the audience), the crowd immediately tightened as people anticipated Destroyer’s entrance. While the eventual crowd certainly made Cat’s Cradle full, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as I had experienced from past concerts at New York’s similarly-sized Brooklyn Steel. Cat’s Cradle is a fantastic venue — intimate yet mysterious, a darkened environment perfect for focusing solely on the music.

Destroyer sauntered onto stage fifteen minutes after Mega Bog’s departure. The girl next to me, a Vancouver native who said she had even seen Bejar in a coffee shop once, gushed at his “effortless perfection.” In keeping with that description, the band said nothing and immediately opened with the first song from “ken,” “Sky’s Grey.” I hadn’t thought that Bejar’s vocals would translate so well, but his idiosyncratic delivery was replicated perfectly throughout the song and throughout the set. When the first synth sounds came in, I was struck by the immediate wall of sound. While “ken” is on the softer side, Destroyer’s live presence takes that sentiment and imbues it with live energy. The trumpet player’s additions were breath-taking: Several times I marveled at his chops of steel and the ways he played some of the catchiest riffs from “ken” with piercing accuracy. Between several songs, the trumpet player and the guitarists provided a massive amount of noise, eschewing silence in favor of this improvised trumpet and guitar mash. This noise built up to several song intros, acting as a crescendo of sorts. I quickly lost sight of the Vancouver native I had met — later I saw her even closer to the front, swaying with her eyes closed and looking perfectly content. 

Destroyer’s simultaneous lack of engagement with the audience and complete control of it is fascinating. The first intentional words from the band were uttered around halfway through their set, when a guitarist heartily exclaimed, “Everything’s f---ed!” before half-heartedly offering, “So, today’s the State of the Union, right?” After some mutterings and a few obscenities over the current political climate from the crowd, Bejar began to speak more frequently, but only to say the name of the next song and to occasionally thank the audience for coming. Other than that, the only indication that he was even aware of an audience was in his exaggerated bows that became more and more extravagant as the night progressed and as his drinks multiplied. From the minute they walked onto stage to the last song of their encore, Destroyer had complete audience captivity. Even my concert companion, someone who had only started listening to Destroyer two weeks prior, admitted that Bejar was “somehow bizarrely attractive” despite his disheveled look and inexplicable stage presence.

The majority of the setlist was songs from “ken,” but several other songs were thrown in the mix, most notably “Chinatown” and the title track from “Kaputt” and “Times Square” from 2015’s “Poison Season.” The most memorable part of Destroyer’s performance, though, was their slow-burning performance of their most well-known song, “Bay of Pigs.” The opening guitar riff was met with tens of enthusiastic “Yeah’s!” from fans who had no doubt been hoping to hear the hit. The slow build-up led into a passionate scream from Bejar — “Christina White!” — as he segued into the rest of “Bay of Pigs,” insisting, “You’ve got to stop calling me honey!” 

The band initially left after “Bay of Pigs,” but the crowd’s insistence on an encore led them to saunter back onstage just as they had before, playing two more songs before finally leaving. The crowd slowly milled out, and I did as well, curving to the front of Cat’s Cradle to call an Uber. To my surprise, I saw the band huddled around the front of the venue, talking and smoking in a circle. Too scared to approach, I kept some distance until my Uber arrived, nervously whispering to my friend as I wondered if they had noticed us. I affirmed to myself and to her: I wasn’t going to bother them. They deserved to be left to their own devices after a performance like that. 

I couldn’t resist. As I was about to leave, I turned and waved frantically. 

“Thanks so much for the show!”

They looked at me for a moment. And then they waved back.