It’s 10:00 on April 10, a Thursday night, and the show is running behind schedule. Spirits, however, seem to be high as more and more students pile into Beckham Hall, making the cavernous, slightly antiseptic room feel smaller than usual. Adding to the effect is the stage, a knee-high platform decked out with lamps that look like they were lifted from the basement of somebody’s grandmother. The lamps produce an orangey glow that proves a welcome alternative to Beckham Hall’s harsh magnesium lighting. Onstage, a scraggly bearded man has begun the sound check. He leans into the center mic and stares out vacantly, drawling in a deep voice: “Balllss, baallllss, baallllsssooooooooooh.” The close, sweaty crowd is unfazed. They’ve come to see MGMT.
When it comes to pop culture, there’s a lot that Wesleyan has to be proud of “ from Lemony Snicket to Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Wesleyan has made a habit of cranking out quirky artistic talents. The latest ” and arguably, most popular “ addition to this distinguished order is MGMT, the Brooklyn-based musical brainchild of University alums Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden, both ’05. In recent years, these prodigal sons have installed themselves as a fixture in Wesleyan culture, sidling up alongside gender neutral pronouns, He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named Day and the baffling compulsion to add “Wes” as a prefix to anything and everything.
Unlike Zonker Harris Day, however, MGMT’s popularity is not confined to Wesleyan’s own idiosyncratic tastes: the duo, whose psychedelic brand of electro-pop has been hailed by everyone from Rolling Stone to Spin, have exploded in recent years, garnering an NME Award Nomination, a contract with Columbia Records and, most recently, a spot at Lollapalooza. Still, Goldwasser and VanWyngarden ” who, after all, graduated only three years ago “ seem loath to give up their origins just yet, and have stayed in relatively close contact with their alma mater. The two played at Eclectic early last October, a show that was marred by technical difficulties and premature shut-down by Middletown police. Thursday’s show, their second and more successful of the school year, was prompted when MGMT’s manager contacted organizer Zach Fried ’08, saying they wanted to play at the University again. Wesleyan students responded with overwhelming enthusiasm. Although the show wasn’t widely advertised, Fried estimates that it sold out in less than three hours over two days.
The show opened with Bear Hands, another Brooklyn band fronted by recent Wesleyan alum Dylan Rau ’07, and backed by Ted Feldman ’09 (also of Red Wire Black Wire) on guitar, Val Loper on bass, and TJ Orscher on drums. Bear Hands, who have earned their own accolades from Spin, NME and the Alternative Press, set the mood with a set of raw, catchy post-punk anthems, propelled by tight, hard-edged instrumentation. At their best, Bear Hands channeled the spirit of 1970’s art-punk bands like the Talking Heads and Television, with Rau stuttering, whining and shrieking his way through graveled apocalyptic pop about love and war. The highlight of their set was the infectious “Vietnam,” which Rau introduced by saying, “This is about the war in Vietnam. I think I speak for the whole Wesleyan community when I say… go McCain in ’08!”
By the time Bear Hands finished their set, the crowd had congealed in a sweaty communion of anticipation. After twenty minutes of canned music and jealous jockeying for position, MGMT tramped onstage, igniting the audience with “Weekend Wars,” the second track off their widely acclaimed “Oracular Spectacular.” Over the course of their hour-and-change set, MGMT made their way through the album in its entirety, jumbling the tracks so that the set peaked halfway through with “Kids” followed by “Electric Feel.” Despite frontman VanWyngarden’s undernourished appeal and ballsy bid at eighties retro-wear (his ensemble included frenetically patterned stretch pants, a black tee-shirt bearing the words: “Missouri FBLA,” and a large silver crucifix), MGMT was by no means a one-man show. Instead, the group’s performance relied on a taut subtle synergy that helped balance out MGMT’s contradictory impulses, allowing their songs walk the tightrope between the highly ordered world of pop, and the controlled chaos of impressionistic noise jams.
Though finely rendered, MGMT’s dense electronic orchestration was half-drowned by the swooning crowd, which chanted along to every song while surging up and back in tides of rapturous, spasmodic dance. A few times, these tides erupted forward, nearly sending the people in the front row over the knee-high stage and eventually knocking some of the equipment over; for the most part, however, they remained relatively well-behaved.
MGMT finished off their set with “Metanoia,” the sprawling, Bowie-esque b-side to the UK release of their “Time to Pretend” single. Although MGMT warned that “Metanoia” would be “fifteen minutes of psychedelic jam,” they mercifully shortened its tenure in favor of an almost immediate encore. MGMT came back with their popping new track, “Mindless Child,” followed by another rendering of “Kids,” sung by VanWyngarden and Goldwasser sans instruments, with only an iPod and a mini-gong for backup. This proved an extraordinary moment of communion, as the Wesleyan alums danced and sang with the crowd, seeming to dissolve the barrier between audience and performer. Indeed, MGMT seemed unwilling to leave as they launched into a sloppy version of “Brown Eyed Girl” and ignored P-Safe requests to stop in favor of an Alice in Chains cover.
No one, it seems, was ready to leave. The show ended somewhat gracelessly as Beckham Hall’s lights were cued and Public Safety officers ushered the reluctant crowd out of Fayerweather. Outside, students clustered around the building, standing in the rain as though in a daze.
“The chiming hooks of the MGMT were resplendent no matter where you were standing,” said Josh Sharp ’09. “It might be just that sort of inherent connection of, ’Hey, we all went here,’ but there’s definitely a synergy there that came through in their performance, that we can all feel no matter where we go.”