Pop & Hiss

The L.A. Times music blog

« Previous Post | Pop & Hiss Home | Next Post »

Review: Gotye at the El Rey Theatre

February 3, 2012 | 12:30 pm

Gotye performing at the El Rey Theatre Thursday night in Los Angeles
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


Madonna's "Give Me All Your Luvin'" video premieres everywhere

Drummer Bill Ward calls his new contract with Black Sabbath "unsignable"

'Soul Train's' Don Cornelius remembered by friends, colleagues, fans

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)