At the Rickshaw Theatre on Thursday, June 12
The last couple of times Destroyer played a hometown show, frontman Dan Bejar was flanked by a large ensemble, which helped him to re-create the lush arrangements from his 2011 album Kaputt.
This latest gig, however, was a far more humble affair, as Bejar stripped the project back to its solo origins for an unaccompanied acoustic show. With nine LPs to draw from—plus various other EPs and oddments—this night offered die-hard fans an intimate look into the New Pornographers member’s massive catalogue.
As early arrivers filed into the Rickshaw Theatre, Carey Mercer took the stage shortly after 9 p.m. for an opening set. Although the songwriter had an album with his project Frog Eyes due out in less than a week (a physical pressing of last year’s digital-only Carey’s Cold Spring), he opted to perform under his Blackout Beach solo guise.
Like the headliner, Mercer was armed with an acoustic guitar. It wasn’t a typical unplugged set, however, since he cued up electronic beats while running his instrument into an amplifier and coaxing out waves of distortion and echo. At one point, he jovially asked the crowd, “Too techno or not enough techno?”
His singing matched the intensity of his guitar playing, and his booming vibrato was inflected with twitchy quirks. At times, he stood back from the microphone, allowing his voice to fill the room organically. Bejar spent much of the set watching attentively from down on the floor.
While the music was dark and ominous, Mercer’s between-songs banter was anything but, and he frequently affected accents and joked with the audience. Close to the end of his time, he quipped, “Two more and then the other guy,” and a few minutes later wrapped up with a version of the Frog Eyes cut “Don’t Give Up Your Dreams”.
The theatre was close to full by the time Bejar sauntered out on-stage clutching two beers and a cup containing a few fingers of amber liquid. Picking up a cherry-red acoustic guitar, he eased into “My Favourite Year”, and his voice was scarcely above a whisper as he gently strummed with his thumb. In this stripped-down format, the song resembled a late-night serenade; it was delivered softly enough that, were he to sing it at home, it wouldn’t disturb the neighbours.
After that, he strummed his way through “Your Blood”, which sounded curiously stark in comparison to the jaunty studio version from the 2006 album Destroyer’s Rubies. As Bejar shifted out of the chorus and into the tuneful chord progression, someone in the crowd briefly whistled the conspicuously absent lead guitar hook.
Throughout the 80-minute set, Bejar played a wide cross-section of past material: he sang in Spanish for his cover of Sr. Chinarro’s “Bye Bye” from last year’s Five Spanish Songs, slashed at his six-string while his voice rose to an emphatic yelp on “The Chosen Few” from 2002’s This Night, and reminisced about former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen in the midst of a string of ’90s cuts.
While Destroyer’s albums have diverged wildly in terms of genre, ranging from ramshackle folk to elegantly electrified rock to spaced-out smooth jazz, this acoustic format proved to be a stylistic equalizer. He shifted comfortably between eras, and earned cheers of approval for a sing-along rendition of his New Pornographers contribution “Streets of Fire” (which originally appeared on Destroyer’s 1996 debut We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge).
After every song, he stepped back from the microphone and bowed deeply, allowing his gravity-defying mop of curls to flop down in front of his face. These bows were partly a way to let the crowd know when each number was over, but they also afforded him opportunities to remain hunched and take a swig from his collection of drinks.
The highlight was a mid-set rendition of the Rubies standout “European Oils”, which earned the loudest cheers of the evening. Although Bejar took some liberties with the melody, and this made it impossible to sing along with the “la da da” refrain, nearly everyone in the close-to-full venue joined in to punctuate the climactic bridge: “She needs to feel at peace with her father, the fucking maniac.”
Bejar didn’t say much between tunes, preferring to let his cryptically poetic lyrics do the talking, but he seemed to grow more comfortable as the performance went on. “I’m really going to try on this one,” he joked when introducing “Don’t Become the Thing You Hated” from 2004’s Your Blues.
Laughing, he added, “I think I just jinxed myself. This is probably going to suck.” Of course, it didn’t suck, proving to be a beautiful way to cap off the main portion of the set.
After a short break, he returned for a two-song encore. Just before he ended the night with “Virgin With a Memory”, a fan near the back of the floor yelled at the top of his lungs, “That was a really inspired set.” It was an awkwardly polite compliment to bellow from the back of the room, but there didn’t appear to be anyone in attendance who disagreed with the sentiment.