Grizzly Bear crammed the floor of ACL Live on Friday night, and robustly packed in the mezzanine. The upper balcony was about half full—a minor miracle all the same.
The four-piece Brooklyn, New York, outfit is a pop oddity. 2009’s breakthrough album “Veckatimest” went gold, as single “Two Weeks” scored a Volkswagen commercial. The psychedelia-tinged music is warm and layered, richly alive with folksy vocals and omnichord flourishes.
The veteran indie standby—formed in 2002 and infecting the college radio scene with 2006’s “Yellow House”—writes pensive, unfurling music for the iPod generation’s morning commute. To convene live is an initially awkward but validating realization that we’re not alone.
“I’m really glad we got to come play here after all,” singer Ed Droste said toward the end of the 14-plus-song, 80-minute set. “We were worried about it. Skipping Texas doesn’t feel right.”
He was referring to the cancelled Sound on Sound festival, which originally booked Grizzly Bear. It was scrapped in October after a major investor pulled out, and quietly set back 11 years of essential area shindigs loaded with unconventional and rare performances. Event promoters salvaged some of the lineup by booking it across venues like Empire Control Room, Emo’s, and the Mohawk this weekend.
At ACL Live’s Moody Theater, the band emerged amid a blinding wave of blue lights, between art installations that resembled a widely strewn fishing net. It created an aquarium visual for set opener “Four Cypresses,” a clash of fervent drums and restrained multi-part vocal harmonies.
“Tangled in a pile, it’s chaos but it works,” guitarist and singer Daniel Rossen crooned. It’s a sullen track about refugees and war.
August’s “Painted Ruins,” the band’s fifth album and first since 2012, has more synthesizers, pulsing beats, and isolated vocals. The tunes are dialed in and instantly appealing—they work on, say, “CBS This Morning,” where the band performed last week. And as entertainers force meaning from the uneasy political terrain that clogs their push notifications, and scramble to interpret it in their music, Grizzly Bear’s music looked outward.
Droste is Instagram-famous, boasting more than 600,000 followers, in part because he worked as a global travel correspondent for Vogue. (He also blasted Taylor Swift on Twitter for being mean at a party, prompting fan backlash and the eventual deletion of his Twitter account.) Droste devotes social media real estate to activism, and seems to guide his band as its moral compass.
Older songs like “Fine For Now” landed with weight: “There was time, it took time,” Rossen sang. “If we’re faltering, how do I help with that?”
“Losing All Sense,” peppy and led by a fuzzy bassline, recalled the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.” But otherwise Grizzly Bear concerts are unconventional for rock norms as an audience member: You’re forged between walls of loud crescendos, waiting for something to sing along to, and drenched in strobe lights. (The taped-on-the-entrance warnings about strobe effects were not to be taken lightly.)
“It’s called live music… just a moment in time to absorb each other’s sweat,” Droste deadpanned during an awkward pause to configure his gear.
Otherwise proceedings were seamless. The band thanked budding Austin songwriter Molly Burch for opening, and touring multi-instrumentalist Aaron Arntz for his hard work.
“We want to throw it back to 2006 for y’all,” Droste said as something of a self-aware joke, as if the band had early hits to dust off.
But it did. “Yellow House” centerpiece “On a Neck, On a Spit” played as a lively fan favorite with its rollicking folk chorus. Rossen has said that it’s a song about accepting and toasting his “loner” spirit. For a house packed full of people who surely despise networking happy hours, it was sublime.