Kevin Parker—Tame Impala’s founder, frontman, and guru—seems to have this curious thing about distance. He certainly explores a great deal of it, in texturized, proggy rambles that rival the leg-stretchings of early-’70s Yes. But he also uses his famous vocal reverberations as a way of distancing himself from the audience: That voice is coming at you from the ether, not from the slender Aussie in front of the microphone. At times, it feels like all the trappings of a Tame Impala concert (more pedals than the Tour de France, the subaqueous lighting scheme, and so on) are an effort to navigate, like David Byrne, between Parker’s rich inner and outer worlds, across the proscenium.
Tame Impala’s songs come at you without any apparent interest in explaining themselves—like “Revolution #9” with a better beat. Nonetheless, for all their apparent density, the band has achieved an incredibly loyal following. Not every Australian band whose lyrics are beclouded in psychedelic echo manages to break the Billboard Top 40. At the Cat’s Cradle last night, people were actually singing along to “Not Meant to Be,” which means there are people in the world who know and apparently understand the song’s lyrics. Whether on record or on stage, Tame Impala takes a certain evident delight in challenging its audience just the right amount; Parker, in the Brian Wilson/John Lennon vein, can’t ever resist the next partial melody, but he knows how to make those partial melodies sound an awful lot like hooks. (This is one important factor that distinguishes the band from late-era Yes and early Pink Floyd, two common points of comparison.) Last night’s rendition of “Apocalyptic Dream” emblematized this keen balance between noise experiments and melodies that ring all the purer for the octave pedal that Parker uses to keep him sounding vaguely Icelandic on those stratospheric, downsliding vocal lines.
Poppy as these songs may seem at times, they’re also feats of precision and sophisticated foresight, delivered with deceptively effortless verve, but always on point, down to each 16th note in “Be Above It.” The band offsets this precision-verging-on-robotics not only with songs of empathy and depth, but with a collegial live shtick that shows these youngsters acting their age. A jokey low-end “Thriller” riff bounced around the organs for a few moments while someone adjusted a guitar strap, and a handful of brief, witty bits of improvisation demonstrated a welcome looseness, emphasizing—in case you were wondering—that these guys are not mere automata. “That was ’Avant-Garde Jazz Freakout,’” Parker announced after one ludic little moment, in what must have been a This Is Spinal Tap reference.
Concert-goers enjoy their smartphones more and more these days, but last night may have set some sort of record; phone-jockeys throughout the hall seemed more excited about being at the concert than about being at the concert. (It’s very easy to nod along to “Endors Toi” while texting your friend about how you’re listening to “Endors Toi.”) Eventually I began to wonder whether some people are just meant to experience indie psychedelia from the couch with a pair of good speakers. Certainly you catch more of the nuance that way, but you miss something else altogether when you look down to tap on a device. Then again, perhaps these fans were merely tweeting about the rather yonic lightshow: Georgia O’Keefe on an iTunes visualizer.
Drummer Julien Barbagallo is the spitting image of a young Graham Nash, but plays like a more sophisticated Nick Mason, stealing passages here and there with unselfish but immensely catchy little riffs. The rest of the ensemble, for all its youth, acquits itself with similar virtuosity. Traditional closer “Half-Drunk Glass of Wine,” off Tame Impala’s 2008 EP, used to sound like a Kinks tune; now it’s the long jam done right, a lovely, deceptive medium-grade hill of a song, one you crest before you even know it. Having seen the group, one suspects that Parker, like Byrne, knows precisely what he’s up to, down to each cannily punctuated guitar fill. He’s still navigating between the inward and the outward (it bears noting that the band’s debut LP was called Innerspeaker), with melody as the connective tissue between him and the audience. Just because he lets his hair cover his face doesn’t mean he isn’t looking through it.