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Live review: Akron/Family at the Steve Allen Theater

March 13, 2009 |  2:23 pm

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Given the critical and fan acclaim enjoyed by the somewhat like-minded post-hippie favorites Animal Collective, one could argue that Brooklyn's Akron/Family may be next in line for a pop culture breakthrough. Both rely on rich melodies carrying upbeat if vaguely inscrutable lyrics and each delivers a style-hopping live show rich with improvisation and an exuberant, communal spirit.

But where Animal Collective dips into the collective experience of rave culture as a sonic touchstone, the members of Akron/Family are unapologetic Deadheads at the core, as evidenced by a reverent cover of the Grateful Dead concert staple "I Know You Rider," the encore opener Thursday at the last show of a three-night stand at the Steve Allen Theater. Stripped down to a trio after original member Ryan Vanderhoof departed  to live at a Buddhist Dharma center, they began Thursday's show slowly, even tentatively, as they previewed some of the more contemplative new material from their forthcoming album, "Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free" (due May 5 on Dead Oceans).

While much of "Set 'Em Wild" shows Akron/Family's taste for group harmonies and delicate musicianship, such as with the bouncily pastoral "River," it's the moments where the band follows the unhinged message of its album title that its power peaks.

Against a backdrop of a tie-dyed American flag used as the new album's cover image, the trio stomped on the accelerator midway through the set with the sprawling new single "Everyone Is Guilty," which opened with a sample of tinkling found percussion before settling into a propulsive groove that resembled some unholy cross between Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" and Black Sabbath. The equally driving "MBF" collapsed into a noisy, free-jazz workout as bassist Miles Seaton howled into the microphone, throwing a blast of raw darkness into Akron/Family's usual good vibrations.

But what no doubt drew the crowd to the Steve Allen Theater was the feeling of release the band can so expertly deliver, exemplified Thursday with the psychedelic rave-up "Ed Is a Portal" from 2007's "Love Is Simple." With shout-along lyrics as nonsensical as its title, the crowd bounced, clapped and chanted right along with the song's tribal backbone. For the first but by no means last time that evening, the entire crowd of beardos, thrift-store dresses and Members Only jackets were all part of the family.

-- Photo and post by Chris Barton

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