Mac DeMarco has one of the most charismatic, clearly defined personas of anyone in indie rock. He chain-smokes, cross-dresses, makes out with interviewers, and -- in what might be the key piece of apocryphal Mac mythology -- once stuck his thumb up his ass at a gig. But none of the puzzle pieces forming the whole of Mac's persona really deal with his musicianship. Though the back cover of his recent album Salad Days shows him obscuring his face with a guitar, the image of him actually holding and playing one is unlikely to factor into the average fan's mental picture of Mac.
As such, actually seeing Mac DeMarco playing music live during his afternoon show at Amoeba Records yesterday [July 9] was somewhat surreal only in how larger-than-life he didn't seem. At times, it was hard to distinguish him from his bandmates. He wasn't much taller than any of them, his clothes weren't much more vivid, and his front-and-center position onstage actually made him more difficult to see -- though this isn't his fault so much as Amoeba's for tucking their stage into a corner of the establishment.
He also isn't quite as charismatic a performer as you'd expect from someone so mythologized. His vocals were quiet and understated, and his bassist did most of the yelling. Yet DeMarco didn't seem uncomfortable or shy at all. It's just that the music he plays is essentially soft rock, and as such, it doesn't require any screaming, stage-diving, or anything else likely to coax a crowd into a frenzy.
Thus, he's not an artist I would have died unhappy without having seen live. His original songs didn't sound a whole lot different than they do on record, but they were nice to bliss out to. I might have had a better time if I'd seen him in an actual venue or at an outdoor music festival. His music isn't designed for dancing, moshing, or head-banging but rather for swaying -- something difficult in a venue criss-crossed by an immovable grid of shelves.
Perhaps that's why his set only really started to kick in when he launched into one of the unpredictable cover medleys he frequently performs live. After leading off with a guitar solo that displayed virtuosity beyond what I expected of him, DeMarco took his band into a cover of Bachmann-Turner Overdrive's "Taking Care Of Business." I wasn't quite sure if this was a display of irony or Canadian pride (DeMarco and BTO both hail from our northern neighbor), but the subsequent inclusion of the Beatles' "Blackbird" and Tool's "Schism" suggested the former.
I'm usually averse to this treatment of "uncool" rock, especially given that "Blackbird"'s ubiquity as a late-party singalong shouldn't be cause for it to be lumped in that category or sung in as screechy and mocking a voice as the one DeMarco's bassist put on. But given that DeMarco probably isn't going to be sticking his thumb up his ass again anytime soon, it was nice to see him and his band do something in the spirit of a show. Their cover selection seemed less about elevating themselves above their source material as providing a thrill for the audience -- who wouldn't want to see Mac DeMarco cover "Schism?" And given how DeMarco's music just isn't that entertaining live -- as good as it is -- it was the best they could do to leave everyone with a memorable experience.