Review: Gotye at the El Rey Theatre
There are many ways to get famous on the Internet, from cutting a warbly music video about your favorite day of the weekend to being a New York congressman with an uncertain grasp of Twitter’s direct-message function. Here’s how the 31-year-old Australian-Belgian musician Wouter De Backer, who sold out the El Rey Theatre on Thursday night when he performed as Gotye, got noticed.
First, he recorded “Somebody That I Used to Know,” a quiet, stately breakup song brightened around the edges with samples and vocal harmonies. Then he made a modest video in which he’s painted to blend into a mural and gets an earful when the song’s guest vocalist Kimbra emerges -- painted in similar stripes -- to tell him off.
An adorable cat video should be able to tear this clip to ribbons in Internet traffic figures. But “Somebody That I Used to Know” is currently zeroing in on 60 million views, and it's making an American star of the genre-bending Gotye. He had a long career before this, releasing multiple independent albums of reggae-influenced, electronics-infused folk-pop in Australia, where he’s already a major artist. But he may be one of the best examples of YouTube helping to break a non-novelty pop star in America. His El Rey show proved there’s serious musicianship behind those online likes.
De Backer cut a nice-guy, alt-dude visage onstage at the El Rey, complete with bedhead, a deep V-neck T-shirt and a heartfelt vocal performance. His last L.A. show in the fall, at the Silver Lake indie-rock club the Satellite, sold out rapidly, and for this tour with a full backing band Gotye proved he's already aiming for festival crowds.
De Backer (a drummer and multi-instrumentalist) decked the El Rey stage with acoustic and electronic percussion kits that he wandered among between verses. At the back of the room, a video-manipulator tweaked animation samples that lent sometimes-amusing, sometimes-haunting edges to his songs.
He began the set with his galloping new single “Eyes Wide Open,” a drum mélange that has every reason to be a KROQ hit. “Smoke and Mirrors,” a bluesy waltz driven by electric piano, started as noir but spiraled into sun-dazed pop by the end. Other numbers, especially those from his latest album “Making Mirrors,” were a curious mix of ambitious production possibilities and earnest barbecue folk.
When Gotye’s at his best, the songs have a way of warping old ideas into something fascinating. A blueprint dub reggae jam gets a groaning feedback squall in the margin; he sweetened the depressive trip-hop of “Heart’s a Mess” with velveteen string section samples.
But for all his rangy instrumental talents and un-teachable ways around a chorus, Gotye has a big streak of beach-dude earnestness. That trait’s surely about to make him a Bonnaroo mainstay, sometimes channeling Jack Johnson after an all-night Animal Collective binge. He didn’t leaven the New-Agey coos of “Save Me” by asking for a communal audience call-and-response. And though it makes one critic feel like his own heart pumps viscous black crude for saying so, Gotye’s straightfaced ode to a friend’s dying dog, “Bronte,” veered awfully close to camp.
But those quibbles are up against a tide of audience affection that will probably make Gotye a worthy amphitheatre headliner within the year (he has a coveted Coachella slot in spring). When he played “Somebody That I Used to Know,” he backed off the microphone for the song’s second verse, letting the crowd’s ladies take over for him. They were louder than any thing happening onstage.
-- August Brown
Photo: Belgian-Australian multi-instrumental musician and singer-songwriter Wouter "Wally" De Backer, of Gotye, performs at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)