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Live music review: Local Natives at Walt Disney Concert Hall [Updated]

February 27, 2011 | 10:06 pm

Local Natives are front and center, if not a bit awestruck, in collaboration with a chamber orchestra.

“This is the first time I’ve ever gotten to play a real piano live,” said Local Natives’ keyboardist Kelcey Ayer toward the end of the Silver Lake indie band’s raucous debut with a chamber orchestra on Saturday. He then pointed at his usual instrument, a relatively humble Nord synthesizer. “I hate that thing. But this is like....” He hugged the breadth of Walt Disney Concert Hall’s grand piano and grinned, content.

Even on their 2010 debut album, “Gorilla Manor,” Local Natives seemed to want to go bigger. The band plays a pretty, traditional take on guitar-based indie pop, but the five-piece laces each song with four-part harmonies as intricate and crystalline as a stained-glass window. Their percussion-mad performances show they clearly love being in a band, an easy task after a buzzed-over Coachella set and two sold-out nights at the Music Box last year.

An orchestral collaborative set is a daunting opportunity for musicians still in their early 20s. But in their world of guitars, drums and voices, Local Natives already thought like an orchestra. To add an actual one only underlined the many things they do well.

The first half of the set, a campfire take on half a dozen singles with a string quartet, served mostly as a showcase for those voices. Ayer, guitarists Ryan Hahn and Taylor Rice, and bassist Andy Hamm suggest Crosby, Stills & Nash in the way they approach melody, less as something on top of an arrangement than as a space for the whole band to work. Confined to acoustic instrumentation, songs like “Eyes Wide” and a cover of Television’s “Careful” felt intriguingly democratic. Rice is ostensibly the lead singer, but mostly because he’s in the middle of the stage.

The band members’ interaction is really their center of gravity — they once all lived together in a tottering house (the titular “Gorilla Manor”), and they take the cabin-fever qualities of band life and use it as a compelling starting point for writing and arranging. The string quartet brightened the edges, but it’s a high compliment to Local Natives’ own arranging ambitions that the strings stayed in the background.

Somehow, that dynamic remained even when a dozens-strong symphony backed up the electric version of the band. It’s hard to tell whether Disney Hall is unkind to a level mix between guitar bands and orchestras, or whether Local Natives are such charismatic players that they commanded all the attention, but the band’s rock instrumentation stayed firmly up front. For most acts, that’d be a waste of a perfectly good orchestra, but the roles suited Local Natives well — they’re just too much fun to watch.

On their indie-hit single “Airplanes,” drummer Matt Frazier slyly subverts what should be their biggest chorus payoff with a flurry of sixteenth-note rim shots where most percussionists would hit a huge crash, leaving room for keening violins to underline the longing in lyrics such as “I bet when I leave my body for the sky, the wait will be worth it.” “Shapeshifter” was likely the first time the orchestra had to score for a massive handclap breakdown, and the California-kid optimism of the mission-statement “Who Knows Who Cares” deserved its new widescreen blowout from concertmaster Neel Hammond.

The only thing missing was a little danger — this band is so good at being pretty and capable that an occasional freak-out might suit them — but maybe Disney Hall wasn’t the place to try that. Instead they used this chance to do the one thing they’ve been aiming for their whole career as a band — to make small ideas feel as big and hopeful as a kid sitting down at his first grand piano.

-- August Brown

Photo credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

[Update: The original version of this post misidentified the orchestra that accompanied Local Natives. It was a chamber orchestra for hire, not the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We have corrected the text above.]