The first rock concert on the verdant rear lawn of Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art was meant as a celebration for the waning days of The Birth of the Cool, the first career-spanning retrospective of Philadelphia-born painter Barkley L. Hendricks.
As one of the parting shots for its revolutionary year under the leadership of new director Aaron Greenwald, Duke Performances booked Brooklyn post-punk quintet Les Savy Fav for an outdoor Saturday evening performance, the band's first North Carolina engagement in four years. Exactly why this band was booked for this event, though, I'm not quite sure.
Though the 57 paintings included in The Birth of the Cool stretch from 1964 to 2007, Hendricks' work—mostly life-size, detail-driven portraits of fashionable citizens and celebrities against generally monochromatic canvases—still offers unexpected provocation: A young man in a Bob Marley T-shirt prepares to light a spliff over a wash of psychedelic neons; Fela Kuti stands behind an altar, grabbing his crotch with one hand and holding a glimmering microphone to his mouth with the other; and, in one of the most playfully defiant works in the exhibition, Hendricks stands nude for his own easel, the end of his left thumb pressed against his penis. The title of that piece, "Brilliantly Endowed," poked fun at Hendricks' characterization by white art critic Hilton Kramer as "a brilliantly endowed painter." Hanging on the pearly walls of the Nasher, it remains startling 31 years after it was finished. [Read our article about this exhibit and see "Brilliantly Endowed": "Art history, honored and challenged in Barkley L. Hendricks' Nasher show."]
I'm not sure what Les Savy Fav has to do with any of this: The band's dual-guitar, rhythmically taut indie rock is as well-built as it is razor-sharp. Its tunes are alternately catchy and anthemic, smart and snappy. But aside from the occasionally hyper-literate lyrics of frontman Tim Harrington, little about the band suggests provocation, at least on the level of Hendricks' work inside. Except Harrington's showman antics, which too often overwhelm the band's music: On Saturday, Harrington wore a video camera taped to his head (until he flung it into the audience), doused the first few rows with two 1-liter water bottles, and twice lay on the lawn with his microphone. As he's often done, Harrington even convinced the audience to sit down with him. Meanwhile, the band played on, stiff and rote, like an over-coated canvas in a small-city art fair. The shtick—crazy, big white guy acting zany—gets schlocky after about 15 minutes.
In February, Nasher curator Trevor Schoonmaker told the Independent Weekly, "Barkley Hendricks has always been ahead of his time. His groundbreaking work is as fresh today as it was 30 or 40 years ago." Granted, but why celebrate such a legacy with an act that sounded best Saturday when covering Superchunk's "Precision Auto," a tune first recorded in 1992? Or, as Harrington, a rather large, balding man, dashed through the crowd once again in tight red shorts, pale orange underwear, and a yellow T-shirt he had tied into a sort of makeshift bow, I couldn't avoid the question anymore: Hadn't we undermined the power of the package inside by letting modestly endowed white people dick around outside?
Les Savy Fav looked miserable outdoors. As though summertime in the South was suddenly the musician's equivalent to a Super Bowl in Green Bay, bassist Syd Butler complained about the heat and mosquitoes at least twice during his band's 90-minute set. No one mentioned those factors in Bull City Headquarters later Saturday night, though, even if the space was so tight, crowded and humid that it actually felt as if it may be raining indoors. The main event was Des Ark making its premiere as a new trio. Led as always by Aimee Argote but now backed by Maple Stave drummer Evan Rowe and TigerBearWolf guitarist Noah Howard, Des Ark was menacing and magnetic. After an opening pair of tunes for two guitars, the trio launched into an unrelenting volley. Rowe's splashy cymbals flashed against the guitars, and Argote swiveled around the microphone in wide circles, alternately shouting at and rubbing against the tight-pressing throng. In 30 minutes, the trio doubled the impact of the night's earlier show—sweat, ringing ears and all, no covers required.