Concert Review

Death Grips Lit Up a Dark Election Night with an Illuminating Performance

"They got to stop smoking crack backstage sometime," a girl behind me muttered to her friends as we waited for Death Grips to take the stage. All around us people were checking their watches and cell phones; a nervous, anxious energy circulated in the large crowd pressed up against the front of the stage. It wasn't even 8:30 p.m. yet, and people were already grumbling that Death Grips hadn't started their set. Tom Petty was right: Waiting is the hardest part.

The impatience of the crowd gathered here on a Tuesday night seemed strange. It wasn't late in the evening, and there were no opening acts. Even if Death Grips waited until 9 p.m. to perform, what difference did it make? They'd still be starting earlier than 90 percent of most touring acts that play in Arizona. But the audience was on edge and chomping at the bit for the trio to get going. At one point, half the crowd started clapping and loudly cheering, like they had seen a member of the band walking onstage, but there was no one there. It was like they were trying to force the band onstage by sheer volume and force of will, using some kind of Tinkerbell effect: "Clap if you believe Death Grips are about to play!"

The speakers played a long, persistent drone during the preshow. It sounded like an airplane taking off, building in intensity over time. Maybe that's why the crowd was so agitated: The music made us feel like we were in runway limbo, like the venue was a plane just touching off the ground but not yet soaring into the sky. Maybe that airplane noise was giving the crowd "just fly ahead already" blue balls.

Or it could be something else: Perhaps we were getting punked. Death Grips have been notorious no-shows in the past. While it's been a while since they've pulled any performance-art shenanigans, the timing couldn't be more perfect to pull a no-show on Election Night. Consider this equation: An audience full of people anxiously awaiting the results for the most divisive election of our time + persistent & irritating airplane takeoff noise + waiting hours for a beloved band that never comes = the best unintentional remount of Waiting For Godot of all time. Not playing the Marquee Theatre would be a dick move that would ascend them to troll God-hood, putting them in the big leagues with epic trolls like Martin Shkreli, Shia LaBeouf, and the Republican Party.
Unlike the election results, we didn't have to wait all night for Death Grips to do their thing. A few minutes after 8:30, the band took to the stage. Their setup was spare: A drum kit, a synth, and a mic for MC Ride. No video projections or smoke machines: Just (very dim) blue lighting on the band. They played in relative darkness for most of the night, looking more like writhing shadows than flesh-and-blood rockers.

Here's the thing about Death Grips: They don't need an elaborate stage show, or any KISS-style bells and whistles. Live, Death Grips are a force to be reckoned with, due to the intensity of their playing. And it's an intensity that's matched a hundred-fold by the audience. As soon as the band started playing, the crowd transformed into what can best be described as a slow-motion mosh pit for the duration of the show.

I had seen Death Grips before, and they had the same amazing effect on the audience then as they did at the Marquee on Tuesday. Their music transforms crowds into a wave-pool of pressed flesh and flailing arms and sweat. Mashed up against my neighbors and swaying back and forth to the band's incessant harsh rhythms, I felt like I was trapped in one of those visions of Hell where the lakes of fire are full of intertwined bodies. A Sargasso Sea of limbs wrapped up in each other, heads rebounding off shoulder blades, and legs tangled up in trips and lunges. I have no doubt that if the laws of physics were cancelled out, you could have rolled the crowd into a giant Katamari Damacy ball and kicked us down Mill Avenue with ease: That's how tightly we were packed together by Death Grips' music.

Real mosh pits broke out throughout the show, especially during certain numbers like "Get Got" or "Giving Bad People Good Ideas," which set the crowd into going-apeshit overdrive. But while slam dancing and bodies churning together dominated the night, the overall vibe was positive. People were stoked to be there and looked out for each other. When smaller audience members got bowled over by someone freaking out to "I've Seen Footage," everyone around them stepped in to scoop them back. While the crowd was constantly moving and physically intense, it never felt dangerous or threatening.

MC Ride wasn't one for stage banter. He kept the show going, barking song after song for over an hour and a half. Even in the dim blue light he cast an appealing and intimidating figure, flashing abs you could shatter diamonds on. Death Grips didn't stop for a breather between songs, or applause; each tune bled into the next one. From the moment they came on stage to when they finally bowed out, there was nonstop sound and fury emanating from the Marquee's stage.

While their set leaned heavy on classic The Money Store bangers, the band filled their long set with songs from all their records. Some of the tunes off their more "restrained" albums like Government Plates" sounded incredible live, lashing out with an immediacy and power that made the recorded versions sounded like ringtones for kiddie phones.

By the time they wrapped up their set, I had managed to escape the sea of roiling flesh to camp out with the wall-flowers. Most of the folks who weren't in the pit were looking at their phones. Even through the noise onstage I could hear worried murmurs of "Michigan" and "He just took Georgia" coming from the folks not in the pit. And while I was still high off of the adrenaline of Death Grips' great set, I could feel the anxiety of waiting coming back. For an hour and a half, MC Ride got me to forget about the election. The onslaught onstage and offstage took my eye off of the great question mark floating over my head and kept me from wondering whether it was about to turn into a guillotine blade. And judging from the yells and desperate thrashing in the audience, I don't think I was the only one trying hard to forget about what tomorrow may bring.

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Death Grips at The Marquee Theatre in Tempe

The Crowd: A mixed crowd, mostly clad in black T-shirts. Older balding dudes in Devo shirts stood alongside high school girls doing their best Ramona Flowers cosplay.

Overheard: The roadie coming onstage to drop off water bottles and towels got lots of love from the audience. Chants of "WATER GUY FOR PRESIDENT!" and "FRESH! CLEAN! TOWELS!" rippled through the crowd. Is it too late for Water Guy to be a write-in candidate?

Random Notebook Dump: That guy I mentioned earlier, knocking people over while losing his shit to "I've Seen Footage"? That was me. Sorry about stampeding all over the place like a crazed wildebeest, y'all.