If you hadn’t heard that an indie-famous Atlanta rock band was scheduled to play a secret show in Durham by the morning of April 23, you certainly caught wind of it that night if you were anywhere near the Carrack Modern Art. Deerhunter didn’t concede much volume to the small space. Instead, they seemed to greet it with added ferocity, and their clangorous music cascaded through the open windows behind them, down onto a startled Parrish Street.
Perhaps a hundred people had checked their names against an RSVP list at the street entrance, climbed a tall and narrow staircase, and paid $8 at the upper door of the community gallery and performance space for the rare chance to get close to a Billboard-charting indie band in a more intimate setting than Coachella or even the Cat’s Cradle. And for the Carrack, whose most ambitious musical event to date had been an acoustic performance by Birds & Arrows, it was a persuasive bid to prove itself as a presenter of live music alongside other performing and visual arts.
Not that things went off without a hitch. With a borrowed PA and no in-house sound engineer, a problem with a microphone cable considerably slowed down the start of Deerhunter’s set. But it didn’t dim the spirits of the fully engaged audience. Their bouncing excitement sent premonitory tremors, later mounting to an earthquake, through the Carrack’s wooden floor when the screaming garage rock commenced, knifed with stray frequencies and smothered in wowing drones. The set mingled presumable material from forthcoming album Monomania with aggressive renditions of songs such as “Cryptograms” and “Basement Scene”—“First time we played that in awhile,” frontman Bradford Cox added in his laconically testy way. Thank god no one called out for “My Sharona.”
Deerhunter’s set was tight in the middle and deliriously drawn out at each end. The first couple songs stretched out for well over 20 minutes; dense, frantically coruscating braids of sound building and breaking through ambient, krautrock, and noise rock phases. A span of shorter songs led to an epic, bridge-burning, ear-scorching conclusion that pushed beyond genre and the point of all reason—a thrilling, insensate roar. Deerhunter are very good at bending weighty swaths of disobedient noise across enormous arcs, like a post-punk rather than proto-punk Velvet Underground. Their murky-by-design sound filled every corner; two opening acts more clearly demonstrated the room’s unexplored sonic character.
Before Deerhunter played, there was a set by Jackson Scott, a young Asheville musician who is currently preparing his debut LP for Fat Possum Records. He fronted a slow, heavy rock group that presented bone-crushing music with a bored, serious mien. They all played their instruments commandingly and all looked about 12 years old. They had shaggy Arctic Monkeys hair and tie-dyed shirts for sale. There was a clear affinity with Deerhunter in their liberal and assured manipulation of guitar feedback, but they complemented the headliners’ jittery velocity with a bottom-heavy trudge, with time changes like continents breaking apart. The distorted guitars were forceful yet well-defined in the rectangular room, with bright ringing treble and full, visceral bass. The Carrack’s pleasantly reflective room tone was even clearer during an electronic set by newcomer Mas Ysa, who was something of a revelation.
With no music released and only the vaguest web presence, Mas Ysa was making only his second appearance outside of New York, which made the high quality of both the performance and songs kind of startling. It isn’t easy to control a show with just a microphone and a ring of hardware, but he did it with passion and polish, looping the organic-feeling sounds of woodblock percussion and flutes into his soaring synths. His desperate yelp was genuinely heart-pumping as he smoothly maneuvered between runaway machine anthems and slow, concussive moods, at various times comparing favorably to M83, Xiu Xiu and the softer side of LCD Soundsystem. He even pulled off a hybrid cover where he sang EMA lyrics over Anthony and the Johnsons piano chords, which could have easily come across as gimmicky but was actually lovely. Memorize the weird name now, because I’ll be surprised if you’re not hearing a lot more about Mas Ysa soon.
Three different entities—the DURTY Durham Art Collective, Chaz Martenstein of Bull City Records, and artist and musician Harrison Haynes—worked with the Carrack to stage the concert after Haynes learned that Deerhunter were interested in playing an intimate, offbeat show in Durham while passing through on tour. “Harrison found the talent,” says Max Kaufman of DURTY Durham, “I found the venue and support staff, and Chaz played logistics. It all came together really smoothly.” The Carrack’s sole proprietor, Laura Ritchie—who originally cofounded the space with John Wendelbo, since departed—hopes that the gallery can start serving local and touring musicians in the same way it currently serves artists, poets, and dancers.
“This is definitely a huge event for us,” she says. “We’ll never be a bar-or-club-type situation, but being a performance art space is built into our mission. These kinds of intimate showings are exactly what we want to happen more. And it sounds so beautiful in there.”