Who is Destroyer? Even after twenty years of making music, nine albums, and collaborations with Canadian indie champs The New Pornographers and Swan Lake, most music enthusiasts still can’t answer that question. That’s why I felt connected with everyone joining me last Friday at Victoria’s Roxy Theatre. They were an older crowd; the median age being far past the 19+ requirement stamped on the tickets, but they looked familiar. The hipster highschool kids of the 90s who first experienced Destroyer are now the adults in this theatre.
The Roxy used to be a movie theatre until a couple years ago, when it was converted into a live venue. The last concert there took place in the 1980’s, and ended in a riot and a stabbing, an unlikely result for this particular show. It was still a fitting venue for Carey Mercer, and Dan Bejar, two men known for their theatrical performances. And on this night when I use the word “Perform,” I feel like I’m hardly describing the way they brought the stage to life. Donning their respective masks, they monologued like actors in a vaudeville play, colouring the stage in their own uncontainable personalities.
The opener, Carey Mercer’s Blackout Beach, also contains his wife Melanie, but an injury kept her in the audience and off the stage. Mercer’s good natured cracks about replacing her with a drum machine garnered laughs from her and the rest of the audience. However the loss proved significant, as Carey occasionally struggled to manipulate the drum machine and his battery of guitar pedals simultaneously. Besides making the show more casual, I think he should have left out the drums entirely, as his screaming and warbling guitar licks shook the theatre by themselves.
If you haven’t heard his setup live, you’re missing out. When played through a healthy set of speakers it sounds like a hurricane of noise, ready to set everything in its path on fire. His warbly and over dramatic voice is also best experienced live. It rings out with a passion and intensity befitting a lonely man consumed with sorrow and anger… only a drum machine for comfort. For the darkness he poured forth, the show could have taken place next to the fireplace of a haunted castle in Transylvania, during a thunderstorm, on Halloween.
Carey Mercer must have channeled some other figure, because he couldn’t have been lonely in this show. Not only was his wife there, and a gamut of friends, but his mother as well. She adorably hopped on the stage for some audience participation where a pair of garish shoes, which she bought for Carey, were given away to a “lucky” audience member sharing his size.
Soon after Blackout Beach burned down the stage and the intermission finished, Destroyer emerged from the curtains.
You could have heard a pin drop.
The audience froze with anticipation while he humbly set down his allotment of Red Stripe and picked up his acoustic guitar. He played without much introduction, and the regal way he bowed after each song and gulped down beer likened him to a jester at a king’s court.
The change in mood from burning melodrama to quiet wit was welcome at this point, and the whole audience relaxed as a couple familiar tracks from Destroyer’s Rubies and Streethawk: A Seduction were delivered without adornment. They felt bare in the same way Dan Bejar appeared: simple, quiet, and alone.
He joked about how depressing his acoustic covers of his own material sounded, saying “That’s not what Destroyer is all about.” The audience all laughed, because despite this statement being true, I doubt anyone actually knows what Destroyer is all about. It’s certainly not obvious. Between the many genre changes, a spanish album, and constantly cryptic lyrics, Destroyer has always been infinitely inscrutable. Almost as though while he was on the stage before us, his honest placating voice was muffled and his appearance was out of focus.
I wish I had more to say about Destroyer, but I was drifting during his performance. Its not that I was bored, or sleeping. Far from it. I was transported away by his delicate guitar, and the predictable, humorous rhyme schemes I had heard so many times. Experiencing all the songs I loved and held in high esteem for all these years, played by this lonely man on one acoustic guitar brought them down to earth in a beautiful way. It made his poetry more real, and more tragic. I could suddenly imagine Ruby, Christine, and the other women mentioned in his stories were real people with real lives, walking the street in Vancouver, wondering like anyone else if these songs were actually written about them.
This humble performance seemed as if a curtain were slowly being drawn and the lights were dimming on an elaborate and imagined memory of mine, and it was being rewritten before my eyes. Then I remembered the joke.
Twenty years had passed and Destroyer was still subverting my expectations.