When the New York band People Get Ready visits Duke University for two consecutive concerts this weekend, they will require the gear expected of most rock acts: guitars and attached amplifiers, drums and a sound system, microphones and stacked Masonite.
People Get Ready typically doesn't require that last item, a fabricated wood product used by movers as a bumper guard and by sound designers to produce offstage thunder. For the most part, People Get Ready tours like most every rock band, plugging in and playing its songs onstage for crowds in clubs. They are stationary, save for incidental swivels of the hips and heads.
In Durham, though, they'll reprise Specific Ocean, an hour-long multimedia piece that weaves modern dance, sound art and ebullient theater into the songs of their self-titled debut of danceable, likable and somewhat flimsy pop-rock. During Specific Ocean, seven dancers and musicians emerge from beneath a sea of Masonite, surfacing like dolphins. At another point, bandleader and former David Byrne backing dancer Steven Reker and an alternating member gallop about the stage waving boards of Masonite above their heads, creating seismic sounds as they move.
Elsewhere, a singer is pulled laterally by her microphone cable and a guitarist twirls his instrument about his body like a tail. Bob Boilen, the host of NPR's All Songs Considered, called Specific Ocean "the best performance piece I've seen in more than a decade." He challenged the band to fuse their lithe tunes with such stunts every time they step on stage.
But they can't. In the year since the group premiered the piece last October at New York Live Arts, they've played a lot. This is the first time they've done Specific Ocean again, and for now, no further performances of it are scheduled.
"It's a hard show to get out of town," says Reker. "There's a lot of people and instruments and amps and lighting. We've got all this Masonite. Doing it in New York is hard enough. I could show you my credit card statements and how much I've been to Home Depot recently."
The hurdle for the future is trying to balance the disparate worlds of stand-and-deliver venues with high-production theaters. How can you include choreography on a small rock-club stage without serious injury? And if you're dancing in an ostentatious theater, how can you get the audience out of its cushioned seats without insult?
"When people see a show like Specific Ocean, they say, 'I've never seen anything like that before.' When we do a regular band show, they say, 'Hey, good show.' That's a different feeling," Reker says. "We're working on some ideas to let us be more flexible."
A catch: With such adaptation comes the worry of the multimedia presentation overshadowing the songs and becoming the element that audiences remember of People Get Ready. Rock 'n' roll crowds enjoy a gimmick, but most often they indulge it only briefly. Los Angeles' OK Go had been a band for a decade before its four members danced on treadmills in a heavily choreographed music video that, to date, has earned 19 million views on YouTube and a Grammy. But can you name the song? Or reconcile those statistics with low sales that never earned OK Go a platinum or even gold record? People got tired of Tilly & the Wall as soon as they got tired of the tap dancing.
Reker doesn't want to be a victim of that mentality, but he doesn't want to foster two separate audiences simply because that's what spaces and expectations allow. "We're just some band from New York," says Reker, "trying to do what makes sense to us."
The trouble is simple but endless, then—how best to share that sensibility with anyone else?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ready or not."