DEAD CAN DANCE, Aug. 17, 2012, Red Butte Concert Series, Salt Lake City. One night only.
SALT LAKE CITY — Haunting, layered, timeless — and a sense of untethered dreamscape. Just a few ways to describe the sound of longtime ambient/worldbeat act Dead Can Dance, who performed nearly flawlessly Friday to a sold-out crowd at the Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre.
Following a 7-year hiatus of touring and recording as a group, Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard, the on-again/off-again nucleus of DCD for 30 years, took concertgoers on a mesmerizing journey of musical transcendence that left many dancing, many reflective and many spellbound on a gorgeous hot August night.
Joining Perry and Gerrard for the 2012 lineup were keyboardist and vocalist Astrid Williamson; Jules Maxwell, also on keyboards and vocals; multi-percussionist David Kuckhermann; and Dan Gresson on drums.
Salt Lake City was the sixth stop on an 18-city U.S. leg in support of “Anastasis,” the group’s first new album in 16 years. The title is derived from a Greek term, “resurrection.” Apt for an act embarking on a four-month global trip after first forming in Melbourne in 1981, creating seven studio albums, disbanding in 1999, reuniting in 2005 only to then reform and return to making and performing original music this year.
History lesson: In the 1980s Dead Can Dance was a key part of the early 4AD record label (pre-indie anything) that defined a different generation of popular music artists and fans, which included arthouse acts like Bauhaus, This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins. DCD utilized European musical influences and merged with near Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Turkey, Oriental and North Africa along with instruments from those global genres: yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer), bouzouki and bodhran, among others.
That lush and intricate world fusion continues with their latest work, as those influences were on full display Friday when the band took stage, greeted by a standing ovation, and launched into the cinematic and statement-making “Children of the Sun” from the new album. Perry’s familiar piercing brogue was commanding on the piece as Gerrard performed statuesque and regal in a brown velvet full-length garment with a brocaded shoulder wrap flowing downward into cape panels.
But it was the second piece, “Anabasis,” also from the new album, where Gerrard’s multi-octave vocal range gave the first glimpse of the sonic journey the evening would present: hypnotic, complex and complete, here coupled with Kuckhermann’s tabla work and Perry’s bouzouki playing.
The popular “Rakim” featured Gerrard attacking the yangqin with Perry’s equally forceful singing, while the set design of red and purple starlights during “Kiki” were subtleties to Gerrard’s lilting and then emphatic vocalization. This piece was full of wave after wave of crashing percussion, driving tempo and rhythm for a side area in the crowd off-stage that became an instant dance floor for the remainder of the evening.
DCD deftly performed two traditional — if not ancient — Near Eastern songs: first with “Lamma Bada,” a “lament,” Perry told the crowd, that was 800 years old. It related the tale of needing to be released from the suffering of “unrequited love.” Perry’s skill on the 12-string fretless guitar was showcased with this piece. Another song, “Ime Prezakias,” was in the form of Rembetika, a musical genre of the underworld of Greece in the 1930s, Perry informed the audience. This Turkish number translates to “I’m a junkie,” he said, and the yellow and gold tones from the set lighting complemented the Persian feel of the music flowing from the stage.
Perry then dedicated one of the new songs, “Amnesia,” to the topical Pussy Riot punk-rock scandal in Moscow. Earlier Friday, members of the Russian band were sentenced to two years in a penal colony, convicted of hooliganism after being critical of President Vladimir Putin and profaning a Russian Orthodox altar.
“If memory is the true sum of who we are, may your children know the truth, and shine like the brightest star,” Perry sang earnestly with haunting conviction.
Gerrard reclaimed the stage with the operatic “Sanvean,” from her solo album “The Mirror Pool” (and from DCD’s live “Toward the Within”). The range of her mellifluous overtones in this song produced absolutely perfect pitch and tone. Audience members stared, as with similarly methodic pieces, transfixed and gazed by the melancholic, plaintive and elegiac refrains.
Throughout the evening it was Gerrard’s showcase and command of the wordless glossolalia — substituting comprehensive language with melodic vocalization — that was most impressive in these emotional pieces. Particularly effective were “The Host of Seraphim” from 1988′s “The Serpent’s Egg” and “Now We Are Free” (well-known from the Ridley Scott film “Gladiator”).
The band appeared relaxed on stage as well as structured, and interacted with the sometimes rowdy crowd with a few “Shhh” moments. Perry also thanked them, and offered an apology for not being able to keep a date some 12 years ago the band had lined up in Utah, saying, “now we’ve laid at last one ghost to rest.”
“The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” and “Dreams Made Flesh” (with Perry on yangqin) were encore crowd favorites. The one technical flaw in the show came at the end of the energetic and tribal “Nierika,” where awful feedback blasted out as the song was ending, prompting even Perry to remark about the technical difficulty.
Shining in support roles were Williamson and Maxwell, who were well-featured during the evening, not as mere understatements to Perry and Gerrard but a few times stealing scenes. Williamson’s part singing “Return of the She-King” with Perry was a moving, majestic moment. And it was Maxwell’s searing and real rendition on keyboard playing the final song, “Rising of the Moon,” a synth-vocal duet with Gerrard, that left a wonderful closing impression to the night.
In an interview earlier this month with Pitchfork, Gerrard responded to a question about ambience and space that remains an constant component of the band: “I think the message that’s always been there in Dead Can Dance is, ‘Come on, wake up. Wake up, visceral. Wake up, abstract. Wake up, practical. Wake up, mind. Wake up, soul. This is who you are. This is where you’re going. This is the journey. Here we are. This is the campfire. The campfire is music.’”
It’s without question those attending Friday night’s sonic adventure at Red Butte enjoyed that awakening, and won’t soon forget the journey.
Opening the show, percussionist Kuckhermann performed a brief solo set introducing (likely a first to many in the festive crowd) a percussive instrument called a Hang, sometimes referred to as handpans. This “drum” is related to steeldrums of Trinidad, and the metallic turtle-shell appearance reproduce hypnotic and amazing dynamic ranges and intonations. Kuckhermann’s deft finger-tapping produced intricate rhythms and patterns of tones, including one amazing piece called “Khubananukh.”
Setlist (as provided by a tour crew member following the show)
“Children of the Sun”
“The Host of Seraphim”
“Now We Are Free”
“All in Good Time”
“The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove”
“Dreams Made Flesh”
“Song to the Siren”
“Return of the She-King”
“Rising of the Moon”