By Alice Beecher
When Owen Pallett came to the Cat on Thursday, he only brought a violin, a haphazard looping pedal, and a sarcastic drummer/guitarist. Somehow, he managed to sound like the entire Arcade Fire consolidated in one skinny eccentric. “He made me see God,” said one enthusiastic audience member.
The audience walked in to find the Cat bubbling with quiet energy and excitement, aided by enormous cookies and overcrowded sofas. Pallett’s guitarist opened up with a set that was more stand-up than performance, to mixed results. Crooning, schmaltzy versions of Justin Bieber and Gwen Stefani songs were interspersed with funny banter more entertaining than the songs themselves. The audience responded to the last song with muffled laughter, as we finally recognized that we weren’t meant to take him too seriously.
In retrospect, the opening act provided a nice contrast to Pallett’s expansive and somewhat dark performance, which conjured up the feeling of being stuck inside a space age cathedral. After plucking a few notes on the violin, Pallett introduced his signature looping pedal, recording sequences as he played over them. This textured sound was well complemented by his angelic, soaring falsetto. All at once, the classically precise instrumentation propelled into modernity with pulsing drums and experimental finger-picking/double stops.
The eerie blend of harsh drumming and exquisite violin created the sensation of being pulled both forward and backward in time, as if a romantic alien had landed on earth and discovered classical music. Pallett’s poppy melodies contrasted sharply with apocalyptic lyrics about the future “turning to dust”. The song “Final Fantasy” (also the singer’s pseudonym) referenced “doomsday” and “the end of the century” over eerie layers of violin and cold synthesizer. This created the effect of an entire symphony orchestrated by two men confused about the fate of the universe. If Owen Pallett were alive at the end of the earth, I think he would still play music, regardless of whether or not he had a backing band.
Pallett tempers his focused, passionate stage presence with unpretentious joking between songs, as he told stories about putting dried contacts in his eyes and shouting at vegetarians who maintain their diet because “they hate vegetables.” The banter humanized a show that was at times almost overwhelmingly intense. Pallett is often compared to Andrew Bird for his experimental looping techniques and catchy pop melodies, but from this show, it seems that he chose to veer away from the folksier end of the hyper-articulate violinist spectrum for a more futuristic approach. Comparisons to the Arcade Fire are more understandable, as he did compose string parts for them for years. Nonetheless Owen Pallett should be recognized as a unique performer in his own right, not just through a series of famous associations.
Although the last song was interrupted by technical difficulties with the looping pedal, Pallett’s overall performance left the audience awestruck, incredulous that such a talented musician would play a free show for a tiny liberal arts college in Ohio. The simplified, technology-free rendition of the piece only added to the impression that Pallett doesn’t need the Arcade Fire to create a powerful sound–he is a force of nature on his own, a hypnotic robot with a heart of gold.