An unlikely combination pays off: Parquet Courts with Sun Ra Arkestra at the Fillmore
When they took the stage at The Fillmore Philadelphia on April 5, Parquet Courts were delivering their first show in the city since June 2018. For context, their next-level breakthrough album Wide Awake! – the one that somehow led to them playing Ellen - was less than three weeks old. You don’t need me to tell you how much the world has been through since then. But as far as the band goes, they had to shelve a 10th Anniversary tour and replace it with a one-off pay-per-view livestream and released Sympathy for Life, an album that dove headfirst into traditionally non-Parquet Courts genres like krautrock and electro-funk. Philly fans scored the last night of the tour, as well as an opening slot by local avant-jazz institution Sun Ra Arkestra.
The pairing was brilliant in how it provided two completely different experiences for the audience. Sun Ra Arkestra remains a thing to behold – I counted 14 or 15 members on the stage, though their website identifies 20 active members. Populated by multiple generations of members and led by the now 97-years-young Marshall Allen, they take the stage in sequined, afro-futurist outfits that twinkle under the lights. Even nearly 70 years into the existence of the collective, 29 years after Sun Ra himself died (“ascended”), they take listeners on a pretty thrilling musical odyssey.
People hear terms like “avant” and “abstract” attached to “jazz” and expect something impenetrable and scholarly, but I defy them to watch these guys and apply those latter adjectives to the experience. The friend I attended with was initially ready, to my dismay, to write them off when their first few minutes on stage produced skronk-y warmup notes and the kind of sounds that generally scare people off from jazz. Ten minutes later we were in the thick of the crowd and both locked into the first of many diverse, deep grooves they’d lay down. My friend let me know that he had emphatically changed his tune.
The band slipped back and forth between instrumental tracks and ones with vocals by the Arkestra’s lone lady, Tara Middleton, who delivered in a voice that was smooth, rich, and deep. The Arkestra may be best known as a cosmic jazz band, but their set was as much a survey of pan-global sounds of the last sixty years; one song was dominated by afro-cuban rhythms, others found the rhythm section grounding the exploratory lead instruments with R&B grooves, while others just delivered hard-charging classicist jazz. Their transitions between songs were often sly and came lightning quick, and once they built their momentum, a festive atmosphere took hold that eventually saw alto sax player Knoel Scott put down his horn and start turning cartwheels and laying down a “space dance” for us. And leading it all, far too energetically and swift of mind for someone pushing 100, was Allen, who just about did it all. He played sax. He played E.V.I. (a fusion between a woodwind instrument and a synthesizer that sounded spacy-A.F.). He traded spoken-word lines with Middleton. He directed the band in who should take solos on the set centerpiece “Watch the Sunshine” and even the order in which they stopped playing and left the stage.
If the concert would have been over after the Arkestra’s hour, I would have been pretty content. A bit of a short night out, but one with a world-class performance all the same. Instead, though, 17 minutes later the room went dark again. Two columns of yellow-white light punched through the otherwise complete darkness and the headliners appeared. Casting dramatic silhouettes amidst the lights and smoke, they suggested a seventies arena band, though the opening strains of their moody, coiled Sympathy for Life track “Application/Apparatus” would have sounded pretty out of place at a Zeppelin concert.
I’m a fan of the new album, and “Application/Apparatus” cracked open into a brief, satisfying noise-rock outro, but things really got going after that, with a monster sequence of songs from their previous two albums. “Human Performance” is a powerhouse meditation on the end of a relationship that nods to the band’s Velvet Underground influence, while “Dust” is all existential discomfort until it turns into a jam vehicle, breaking down and charging back to life with churning guitar noise, a steady drum rise, and unexpectedly potent piano work. Those gave way to the put-a-brick-through-a-window punk rock of “Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience” and finally “Freebird II”, a song that sounds nothing like Skynyrd but earns its name because it commands the same kind of massive crowd singalong at its peak that you’d expect from the original. The rest of the concert stayed great, but no sequence of four songs ever topped that run through the recent P.C. back catalog.
Thankfully, the band had picked up some serious new tricks since their last trip to Philly…Hell, even since the 10th anniversary stream two falls ago, which favored work from pre-Wide Awake!. At some point during the set, they expanded to a 5-piece with a percussionist named Diamond Doug coming out to help recreate the early-80s Talking Heads aspects of the new album, which was probably around the time “Freebird II” gave way to a mini-set of new material. This deep dive into the Sympathy for Life material was revelatory, even to someone like myself who’d spent a fair deal of time with the album. During the synth-y space journey of “Plant Life” in particular, I had the twin realizations that “Hey, I actually hear a connection between Sun Ra Arkestra and Parquet Courts!” and “Hey, I’m dancing at a Parquet Courts show!”. If the songwriting itself from the new album isn’t as consistently memorable as on the band’s real high water marks, the infusion of fresh sounds and the band’s joy at delving into their newly displayed Can influence made up for it in a big way live.
They picked up a careening momentum during the Sympathy-heavy portion of the show, even indulging in a drum duel (!) at one point before crashing into a brief but enormous rendition of vintage rager “Light Up Gold II”. Things started to wind down on the space-funk part of the night a few songs later and Diamond Doug left the stage, returning the band to its original 4-piece. This brought what turned out to be the final section of the night, with beloved classics starting to make up a bigger percentage of the setlist. The creamy ‘60s influence to Wide Awake’s “Mardi Gras Beads” jumped out at me like never before, but it would be hard to argue that the late highlight was anything other than a ferocious reading of Light Up Gold’s mega-classic “Stoned and Starving”, one of the band’s most trustworthy live warhorses. Still seemingly in the reflective mindset that had inspired the 10th Anniversary show, Savage dedicated “Stoned and Starving” to anyone who had attended the show they played in 2013 in the apartment above already-tiny Philly venue Kung Fu Necktie. This coming from a band headlining a 2,500-person capacity venue, who looked and sounded like the best case scenario for an artistically vital mid-sized rock band in 2022, gave further insight into how far they’ve come in a dozen years. I wasn’t at the show being referenced, but I was happy to reap the benefits of this killer “Stoned and Starving”, which I can’t confirm is the best version I’ve ever heard, but certainly felt like it was that night in the crowd.
The rest of the night was falling action from there, and if I had one complaint it was that the encore, which they didn’t leave stage for but merely announced, was one song long, and it was Sympathy for Life’s pensive closer, “Pucinella.” Ok, and if I had two complaints, it was that Savage told us at the midway point that they’d made a special playlist just for Philly, and I can retroactively (thanks to setlist.fm) say that while it wasn’t identical to the previous few shows of the tour, it was pretty damn similar. But that’s just the weirdo jam band fan in me who wants different sets every night regardless of whether I’m seeing more than one show of a tour. Regardless, Parquet Courts have grown into one of the finest rock institutions going, a smart, humanist blend of Minutemen and the Velvet Underground, and now one that has manifested a rabid jones for krautrock.