Inspired pairing: Woods and Peaking Lights at Great American Music Hall

Pub date August 9, 2012

“Man, their songs just went on forever,” a fellow in a Velvet Underground shirt exclaimed with mild frustration, as electronic-dub outfit Peaking Lights closed their hour-long set. Similarly to Steve Reich, Neu!, or (ironically, in this case) the VU, the Madison, Wis. duo is quite polarizing in its fixation on extreme repetition. Some find it tedious; others are hypnotized and transported. However, there’s no denying that Peaking Lights’ appeal stems from their disregard for compromise.

Warming up the Great American Music Hall stage for Brooklyn lo-fi folk-rock ensemble Woods, Peaking Lights rounded out the first half of an unusually diverse and compelling double-bill. Whereas a one-two punch of rock bands can impart a distracting sense of competition and redundancy, the decision to pair an acoustic-electric band with an electronic duo was a shrewd one, giving the audience a duality of musical methods to chew on.

Given the current oversupply of disengaged laptop sets, in which musician/producer/DJs plug away mysteriously at their boxes of switches and lights like the Mayor of Oz, Peaking Lights made an impression with their refreshingly old-school approach to electronics. Aaron Coyes’ presence was especially captivating, as he engaged himself in an observable process: loading and unloading tape decks with source material, and manipulating the outgoing sound manually, with the use of knobs and sliders.

During heavily dubby tracks, like “Lo Hi” from their third full-length, Lucifer, released this past June, Coyes channeled the radical techniques of King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry, laying a groundwork of seemingly bottomless bass tones, and cutting through the rumble with sharp, percussive attacks, densely affected by an arsenal of phasers and echoes. His Jamaican-soundsystem-circa-1970 strategy was fascinating to watch, particularly for those with an appreciation for dub reggae and its technological context.

Indra Dunis, the other half of Peaking Lights, imparted a welcome contrast to Coyes’ experimental tendencies, supplying mantric vocals, tapping out infectious keyboard melodies, and taking breaks to shake maracas and dance along to Coyes’ layered grooves.

Whether they qualify as a pop outfit with an experimental bent, or a niche act with populist impulses, this fusion between the familiar and the esoteric is ultimately the source of Peaking Lights’ success. Coyes’ restless experimentation and Dunis’ pop approachability complemented each other beautifully, so it makes perfect sense that they are, in fact, a married couple.

Considering the heady ruthlessness of Peaking Lights’ set, Woods were given a tough act to follow. Often pigeonholed as a pastoral folk act, the four-piece seemed intent on debunking the Pitchforks of the world who dare synopsize their act with single-sentence quips. Resembling Neil Young in their ability to transition seamlessly between low-key, backwoods, campfire anthems and extended, psychedelic jams, Woods showcased their versatility with great conviction, adapting their tunes to the stage with impressive muscle.

Previewing material from the forthcoming album Bend Beyond, Woods were most captivating during their marathon electric-guitar freakouts. At their most energetic, these jams recalled the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic (2009) in their fuzzy, pummeling badassery, eliciting a primitive, visceral response.

The quieter, low-key material, however, suffered from an unshakable sense of been-here-before-ness. Although perfectly serviceable, Woods’ slower numbers were rendered inconsequential by the immediacy of their extended epics, and the high standard set by Peaking Lights’ performance. Given the sheer amount of middling pop music clogging the market right now, it takes a really good song to penetrate our information-age attention spans; some of Woods’ material simply failed to pass that test.

Bandleader Jeremy Earl’s voice also left something to be desired, at times hovering frustratingly between a modal register and a falsetto, without really qualifying as either. Vocals aside, though, Woods’ interplay was smooth and purposeful, with their standard lineup of bass, drums, and guitars accentuated by G. Lucas Crane’s electronic treatments and Jarvis Taveniere’s mandolin strumming.

While Peaking Lights’ novelty and innovation gave them a slight edge over Woods’ more conventional approach, the pairing was inspired, and mutually beneficial for both acts. Woods provided an ideally poppy antidote to Peaking Lights’ experimentation, while Peaking Lights’ avant-garde impulses were emboldened by Woods’ straightforwardness. The music world could use more double-billings as smartly put together as this one.