On Sunday, the stage at the Fox Theater in Oakland did something slightly uncharacteristic: it took an extragalactic trip.
Host to French dream-pop band M83, the stage—which typically tends to dwarf the bands playing on it—was transformed into a glittering portal into the cosmos. The band had divided the deep stage into platforms of various heights, brimming with electronic gadgetry, instruments, and rotating LED tubes strung at haphazard angles throughout the space above. Behind them stood a massive LED screen, extending from floor to ceiling, pulsing in time to the music with a swirling display of stars and galaxies. It was like looking out through the cockpit of a massive, awe-inspiring spaceship, and M83 frontman Anthony Gonzalez was the captain, surrounded by a crew of four working furiously at their stations.
Gonzalez is the creative force behind the band as writer and composer, but he takes on a more subdued position onstage, eschewing the limelight to direct the show from his analog panel of knobs and switches or playing rhythm guitar. Meanwhile, lead guitarist Jordan Lawlor dances through his guitar solos and the band’s multi-instrumentalist blisters through his saxophone riffs all over the stage. The addition of rich overtone vocals from Kaela Sinclair, who also plays keyboards, completes the construction of the lush, dreamy synth-scape the band is known for.
The balance in spotlight between the performers was appreciated. All of them were fantastic players, and Gonzalez gave them the opportunity to shine, even disappearing for most of “Go!” as guest vocalist Mai Lan—who sang the track on the album—took the stage to the surprise and audible joy of the fans present. Where many artists with solo projects treat their touring musicians, at least on stage, like hired help, M83 integrated them into the performance to a much higher degree.
The immediate joy in seeing electronically oriented artists live is hearing massive drops and layered synth choruses at absurd volumes, with core-vibrating bass underfoot. But with M83, the live experience is compounded in the sense that classical instrumentation—electric guitars, basses, keyboards, and saxophones—are the basis of the mixes. That’s not always easy to hear on their albums; the level of distortion and modulation undergone by each instrument leaves it difficult to discern whether a particular sound comes from a live instrument or from software.
In M83’s live show, however, the analog instrumentation is on display, in contrast with DJ or EDM sets. Yet in sonics and presentation, it feels like a fusion of both genres. At the core you still have musicians with guitars and saxophones on stage playing, yet Gonzalez is modulating the sounds from his personal soundboard and the light show almost rivals those ascribed to the EDM scene.
The setlist included a balanced mix of songs from M83’s newest release Junk, as well as several from Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and older records like Saturdays=Youth and Red Cities, Dead Seas, & Lost Ghosts. It was clear from the reactions of the crowd that they were well versed in both the old and new songs, cheering equally for the emergence of Mai Lan for the new tracks as for the emblematic intros of the old.
M83 has never shied away from exploring diametrically opposing dynamic ranges and moods in its songs, and Gonzalez didn’t attempt to pack the set with only the dance oriented hits. The crowd jumped and danced during “Midnight City,” placed conspicuously in the middle of the set as a middle finger up to anyone that might claim it is the only choice as a closer. Yet in close proximity was “Wait,” a slow, soul-wrenching ballad that prompted one six-foot man in the crowd to warn his friend, “Oh no, I’m gonna start crying, dude.”
That ability to take the crowd on a journey from high to low and back to high energy, from heavily electronic to primarily classic instrumentation, is what makes watching M83 live so damn interesting. As one man in his forties put it on his way out of the theater, “In the last fifteen years, I’ve never once had better entertainment for $42.50.”
Imad Pasha covers music. Contact him at [email protected].