has always been a deft hand at crowd interaction: his freestyle raps, in which he strings together 6 topics chosen at random by the audience, involve the crowd in a way that beautifully demolishes the distance between the watched and the watcher; his propensity for engaging in honest, clever repartee with his fans diffuses any worries of pretensions. What's more, he's always had a peerless stage presence, has always brought a kind of wild-dog intensity to his performances where his peers settled for a kind of jocky swagger or a bit of machismo nut-flexing or, if they're particularly rotten, a condescending bit of professorial lecturing. He's always been smart, he's always been sharp and, most importantly, he's always been passionate, choosing to bark and growl and roar his songs like a man denouncing a traitorous god rather than to sing them, to stomp around the stage with seismic force. However, for as much emotion as he packs into his music, Astronautalis has always resisted being vulnerable. He's always been approachable, but a certain need to be the smartest guy in the room always kept him at something of a remove.
That changed with the concert at The Mercury Lounge this last Saturday. Though the set started well, with a barbed rendition of "Thomas Jefferson," it wasn't until he began singing "Barrel Jumping," probably his most honest song, that Astronautalis hit some kind of wall. There was a moment where singing became visibly painful for Astronautalis: you could see his jaws tighten, his eyes squeeze down to fight back tears, his body start shaking as he tried desperately to stifle his emotions before finally exploding into a series bodily convulsions that would have been embarrassing on anyone else, but fit his particular brand of histrionic performance like a tuxedo fits James Bond. There was another moment in "Measure the Globe" where he forgot the lyrics because he was so overwhelmed to find everyone singing along that he honestly had to stop just to appreciate the moment. Not that this kind of raw emotionality interfered with the show: to the contrary, it actually enhanced the intimate aura that's always defined his performances, rarefied what has always been lurking there, but was held too much in check by professionalism or fear or public decorum, freed him up to rip into "Contrails" like a lion tearing into a zebra, made him flexible enough that he found a way to invest Paper Tiger's
robotic remix of "Dmitri Mendelev" with a peculiar kind of nervously celebratory nature and zapped him with such a charge of goodwill that, finally, he jumped down into the audience for a round of dancing at the climax of "Midday Moon."
It might be an overstatement to say the experience was "life-changing," but it might not be entirely inappropriate to describe it as something just short of rapturous. Communal feelings are rare in the heavily entrenched niches of the musical world these days, honesty and vulnerability scarce in a music scene that's always seemed to value disaffection, condescending wit and irony beyond all else. To have an artist as talented as Astronautalis come along and demonstrate that it was more than socially acceptable to be emotional, that it was artistically empowering, was thrilling beyond compare.