Animal Collective lead an ardent following — a community bolstered by active subreddits and fan forums dedicated to celebrating, documenting, and theorizing the Baltimore experimentalists — so the band headlining Pitchfork’s 21st Birthday last night felt kind of like the merging of a Phish concert and an office party. The Knockdown Center in Queens, NY amassed a crowd replete with animal ears and button-downs throughout three huge rooms and an outside area. Scanning the throngs of people, I noticed a guy in a bomber hat waving to me. “Did I take your seat or are you just being friendly?” I asked him. “Just being friendly.” He went on to introduce me to five other dudes, also wearing winter hats, who had all met through an Animal Collective meme page and traveled from Michigan and Montana for the show. I asked when they started listening to Animal Collective and their answers all revolved somewhere around high school and college. One said he started listening to the band when their 2012 album, Centipede Hz, came out. “But then I went back and listened to all of their earlier stuff,” he reassured me.
Animal Collective were slated to play their breakthrough 2004 album, Sung Tongs, all the way through for the first time. Even non-diehards knew this was a big deal. David Portner (Avey Tare), Noah Lennox (Panda Bear), Brian Weitz (Geologist), and Josh Dibb (Deakin) have been making music with and around each other since high school, when their parents’ houses were their recording studios. Sung Tongs and its preceding albums mark Animal Collective’s back porch era, influenced by hallucinogens, horror movies, and domestic spaces. Their first four records rattle with dense experimentation that magnify and transfigure the bedrooms and porches they were recorded in. While still limited to in-house recording, their fifth, Sung Tongs, ached with ambition.
I hung around the photo pit after opener Alex G finished his set. The audience seemed unfazed by his performance, staring at the soon-to-be-occupied stage, anxiously bouncing and toe-tapping. A glitter-faced girl told me she liked the daisy on my sweater. She said she had traveled from Tulsa for this show; her now-deceased friend introduced her to Animal Collective six years ago and she’s been following them ever since. She wore a crystal around her neck that the friend had given her.
Two chairs were set up for Avey and Panda, the only members who play on the album. The mere sight of this brought on a frenzy of whoops and howls. Each chair had an acoustic guitar and two microphones, while a tom drum sat in between. Animal Collective’s stage arrangements are known to be extravagant — psychedelic visuals and mouth-shaped stages — but it only seemed appropriate that Sung Tongs’ stripped down ambience was met with an equally bare-bones setup. Avey and Panda finally emerged and the audience roared and hugged for a good minute. Avey wore a navy-and-peach striped shirt with a red-and-blue striped beanie, while Panda donned a hoodie and a five-panel hat. They looked about 20 years late for school picture day. I wondered if this was done on purpose, given the album’s childlike spirit. “Sung Tongs,” Avey said to more screams. They took to their guitars for “Leaf House,” a mesmerizing entrance into the sonic playground they built on the album.
Sung Tongs is an album that has frequented my headphones for years, so I didn’t quite know what to expect from a live set. Surely there would be stylistic differences and embellishments, but would it hold up? How could they recapture that energy? And from the first “ah” of the opening song, I noticed an unfamiliar tone. Their voices swirled and blared with a sharper tenacity, like they were chasing their own words. Hearing Avey’s feral scream in real life felt cathartic. The anxiety at the core of Sung Tongs was fully realized in its live performance. “Visiting Friends,” the album’s 12-minute soundscape, was every bit as stirring, hypnotic, and long as I had remembered; some fringe fans treated the expansive gurgles and strums as an intermission, leaving the core — the ones who traveled hours to see them, the ones whose lives they changed — to fully immerse themselves in the remaining songs. Everyone shouted the words to the next song in unison, just seven words: “You don’t have to go to college!” I’ve always loved that transition. The first and only mosh of the night was during “We Tigers.” It looked to be a very friendly mosh, led by a will to play pretend.
Avey’s face widened and contorted wildly with every noise he made throughout the performance; shrieking and meowing in his matching striped outfit, he truly looked like a wide-eyed child. Panda’s expression was softer, but equally affected. They looked like two big kids making noise, which is kind of what Sung Tongs is — an unbridled exploration of adulthood through the eyes of a kid, sometimes icky and often beautiful. It’s an album that truly captures Animal Collective’s playful, yet introspective essence and their commitment to bringing out the ecstatic inner child in their fans.