The house lights are up and a hundred or so kids dressed in second-hand clothes and skateboard trainers, ages ranging from late teens to late twenties, are hunkered down on the floorboards of the Usher Hall. Mac DeMarco, shirtless and laminated in sweat, is collapsed on the lip of the stage singing them a ballad about his estranged father. In the fenced-off trench between him and them, and dotted all around the venue, are event staff who stride and gesticulate while fast-muttering into their earpieces. For a good number of folks, the last two hours have been something of a nightmare thanks to Mac DeMarco. And there’s a few still for whom the ordeal isn’t over yet. Someone’s got to deal with the toppled amplifier stack for instance, currently splayed across the stage and presumably sticky with booze. And when the bouncers do finally manage to tear the loyal subjects away from their jester prince, it’ll be some poor schmuck’s job to gather up the trampled remnants of a raw onion.
It all started tamely enough. Opener Alex Cameron from Sydney gave his sardonic Poundstretcher Springsteen a full band makeover, and while the jury’s still out as to whether his debut record Jumping the Shark actually features any saxophone, his long time “business partner” Roy Molloy was there diligently doot-dooting out one note phrases for the duration. Cameron was a magnanimous host, in stark contrast to his musical persona – a seedy, down-on-his-luck businessman/entertainer who would fit right in as the warm up act in a Blackpool night club. Live, there’s more of an emphasis on the instinctually enjoyable aspects of his music – Cameron’s tunes are easy to move to and sound great with real drums and keys – as well as enough slippage of the mask that the whole thing is actually pretty darn entertaining instead of just being weirdly unnerving conceptual art.
If the idea of Mad DeMarco playing a century old concert hall with two tiers of gallery seating and polished brass fittings sounds like an enormous joke to you, you don’t even know the half of it. It seems such a bizarre prospect partly because of the kind of personality DeMarco projects – a mischievous, slovenly goof for whom pomp and circumstance seem the absolute anathema – and partly because his music is so anti-anthemic. His odes to cheapo cigarettes and taking it easy, though harboring masterful ear for melody and actually a fair amount of sincerity, have always flirted sufficiently with tastelessness and crusty lo-fi aesthetics so as not to be taken too seriously.
Well, tell that to throng of fans passionately belting out every lyric to Salad Days. At only two songs into the set there are already people hoisted up on each others shoulder while the beginnings of a mosh pit revs up around them. That most cringe-worthy of chants breaks out and DeMarco echoes it back, bemused: “here we fucking go!” he repeats in a mocking dirtbag croak. And things continue in this way for the first third: DeMarco and crew play the hits while the crowd respond with a hungry enthusiasm, thrashing around to the Stars Keep Calling My Name and clapping on cue to For the First Time, and the whole thing seems uncannily neat and tidy. It’s apparent that there’s something of a mismatch between the original appeal of
DeMarco’s music – consciously odd and rough around the edges, delivered with a cheeky gap-toothed smirk – and the highly professional context in which it’s now being consumed en masse here. (At no point is that more apparent than later in the set, when DeMarco jokes “okay, the next one’s an Oasis cover” and a large section of the crowd proceeds to sing a whole verse and chorus of Live Forever to themselves while the band glance at each other in bewildered amusement)
I can’t remember if the onion landed on stage before or after DeMarco emerged from behind the amp stack wearing a See You Jimmy hat, but either way, it was around then that things started to fall apart. Each member of the five-piece gets to try on the cap, which conjures from within its wearer a heinous impression of a scottish accent, and the onion does the rounds too. When it lands in DeMarco’s hands, the crowd emit a slow rising howl that substitutes as a non-verbal equivalent of “down it!” until he gnashes a great chunk out of it. And then the madness begins.
I didn’t know the name of the song that the band played – or should I say improvised around – next, but I knew the song. I just googled the letters “dadadi dadada” and it turns out it’s called, incredibly, Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless). Wikipedia tells me it’s a house classic and got to number two in the UK charts. I just remember it from school discos and leisure centre cafeterias in the late nineties. I imagine it’s one of the tracks that auto-plays on those touch screen pub jukeboxes when they’ve been idle too long. Wikipedia also tells me that there were thirteen versions of the track released, though I’m fairly certain none of them include the word “shrimp” repeated over and over, like DeMarco’s rendition did, with heavy emphasis of the “puh” sound of the “p”. And even the longest variant (“Give it Up” Vocal Mix – 8:07) probably isn’t half as long as what was played on the stage of “Scotland’s premier live music venue”, nor does include a wind chime solo. With this ludicrous cover, DeMarco seemed to be doing either one of two things: auditioning for an Adult Swim parody of the career of Steely Dan, or testing lengths he’d have to go to, to actually get booed.
It turns out one meandering circus act massacre of an arbitrary pop culture artifact doesn’t quite cut it, so we also get mash up of the Jedi Theme from Star Wars with House of the Rising Sun, in which the only lyrics are “Meesa Jar Jar Binks” sung with an operatic intensity. Later, when the band have entirely given up on the idea of playing two of their own songs in a row start to finish, Vanessa Carlton’s 1000 Miles gets the “waitress in a cocktail bar” treatment, morphing in a Beckett-esque single-act tragedy in which guitarist Andrew Charles White assures again and again that he’s making his way downtown without ever reaching his destination.
Though far enough down the rabbit hole at this point that his own material seems a secondary concern, DeMarco and the band nevertheless do well by their big hitters. Cooking Up Something Good does just that, Freaking Out the Neighbourhood gives the floorboards a good battering and a kid even gets invited onstage to play the solo from Ode to Viceroy, which – to the sound of several hundred nervous exhales – he actually nails.
The rest of the gig proceeds in the manner of a bacchanalian frenzy. The band drown a bottle of unidentifiable liqueur between them and before long DeMarco is taps ‘aff, Bruce Lee-ing his amp and mic stand to the ground while over stimulated boys down the front (one them on crutches) wrestle past the security staff onto stage. Both drummer Joe McMurray and DeMarco crowd surf, the latter taking a puff from one of the many fans who’ve decided smoking inside is definitely a cool thing to do. The distorted freakout that closes Moonlight on the River, one of the scarcely few eyebrow raising moments on this year’s This Old Dog, sounds practically tame coming at the end of this mess, but it’s honestly a relief to hear the musicians channel their abundant mischievous creativity into some actual music once more before they wrap things up.
And then we’re back where we started. The house lights are up, a hundred or so kids are hunkered down on the floorboards of the Usher Hall and I’m wondering, as much I was entertained by freewheeling stupidity of tonight’s gig, how long Mac DeMarco can keep this shtick going. The complete disarray that was the second half of this show had the feeling of self-sabotage, like a confused attempt on DeMarco’s part to re-establish a little distance between his music and the jock-ish contingent it seems to have attracted recently. But seeing the respect which both he and much of the remaining audience pay his candid farewell performance of This Old Dog closer, Watching Him Fade Away (by leaps and bounds the most personal track in his repertoire), I’m left feeling optimistic. It seems clearer, now that all the silly antics are behind us, that at least some folks in the room still have a good sense of why they connected with Mac DeMarco’s music in the first place.
Photos courtesy of Douglas Hill.
For more on Mac DeMarco and his live gigs click here.