‘Live at 9:30’ Finds Animal Collective Embracing Their Inner Grateful Dead 

"Live at 9:30," the band's first official live album, is an unexpected joy.

Geologist (a.k.a. Brian Weitz), the head-lamped electronics wizard in veteran experimental pop group Animal Collective, was a Grateful Dead fan from an early age. In a 2009 article in Arthur Magazine on “How to Get Into the Grateful Dead,” he remembers falling in love with the band almost exclusively through his Deadhead cousin’s bootlegged live recordings — “I don’t really remember seeing any albums,” he claims. He also recommends the band’s official live albums highly (the “out”- jazz-influenced Live Dead, mostly). Dave Portner (Avey Tare) also has expressed enthusiasm for the Dead, having seen shows with the original lineup when he was in junior high, and in 2009, Animal Collective became the first musical act to license a Dead sample with “What Would I Want? Sky.”

This musical connection is a way of illustrating that the Dead are a major reference point for AnCo (as unlikely as that might seem after first hearing both bands’ music side-by-side), especially in their approach to the live setting. For them — as for many Deadheads — the real Dead was the one evidenced in live performance. In 2008, Portner told Pitchfork.tv that their love of seamless sets were informed by “the Grateful Dead and Pavement…bands who included a bit of improvisation in their sets, but would also mesh songs together in the way that a DJ would or an electronic musician would.”

This approach has characterized Animal Collective shows since around the time of 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, when they began to embrace long stadium-ready set lists. The old songs inevitably sounded different, and were usually set to new backbeats and instrumentation; even primary melodies were changed. This is not unlike what the Dead used to do; even if the reconceptualization of songs isn’t as extreme (in this way, AnCo channel Dylan more than Jerry), the fluid, psychedelic feeling of the cumulative experience certainly is. Somehow, it always feels satisfying, even if one’s favorite songs come out a different way; Avey, Panda Bear, Geologist, and Deakin’s passion for their fresh approach to the source material is infectious.

Given their constant Dead-citing, an official AnCo live album almost feels overdue. Though 2002’s Hollinndagain was performed live, it was intended as a recording of new material, not to capture an overall concert experience; also, it came prior to their development into a full-fledged rock band. The new Live from 9:30, a chintzily packaged release of a 2013 set from the eponymous Washington, DC club, feels like a typical Animal Collective set in many ways. It includes watershed tracks from the better part of their fifteen-year career, but also, it sound specific to their methodology of the past few years in particular. In the album’s second half, they band waxes more experimental than they have since the days before their 2004 breakthrough Sung Tongs.

They mostly deconstruct songs from their most recent full-length, Centipede Hz — often, these veer into ambient meanderings, full of haunting vocal improvisations and psychedelic, desert-bluesy guitar licks (see “Pulleys” for the most extreme example). These songs, stripped of some of their dense abrasiveness in the live setting, are some of the record’s most rewarding moments, giving a whole new perspective on the compositions, and should appeal to fans of the band with whom the album versions did not resonate.

There are also rewarding retakes of some of their most popular tracks — from Feels’ “Did You See the Words,” to Strawberry Jam’s “Peacebone,” to the once-ubiquitous, eminently danceable “My Girls.” The band builds excitement expertly in these performances, stretching out their opening sections to make the advent of the choruses as cathartic as possible.

It’s easy to write off live albums as inessential in a band’s discography, or even as copouts and cash grabs. But with a band with as inspired and unpredictable an approach to the concert setting as Animal Collective, this blanket assessment shouldn’t be blindly applied. This crisp better-than-bootleg finds the band sounding fantastic — this particular set must have been carefully selected — and it may in fact be the band’s most listenable release of the past five years.