John Maus’ profound sadness: dark synths and release at the Rickshaw

John Maus at Rickshaw Theatre, 12/02/18

Few are willing to show such vulnerability on stage singularly as John Maus. This was the underlying feeling about Sunday night’s packed Rickshaw show.  The former Animal Collective and Haunted Graffiti keyboardist let loose on stage, and the audience—an East Van hipster coterie—loved it.

With more than a decade of solo work under his belt, Maus is touring in promotion of his new album Addendum, which dropped in May. This tour is a resumption of a spring/summer tour that was cut short due to the tragic death of Maus’ brother and band mate Joseph.  The loss was felt in the music Sunday night.

The opening act didn’t perform due to “technical issues,” so Maus really did stand alone on stage. Using only a deck with prerecorded tracks and a microphone, Maus hit the minimally adorned stage fast and heavy with his signature driving synth loops and bottomed-out vocals that shutter between a dark Ian Curtis and a thoughtful Bowie. There is poetry in the words, though, and an intellect too; John Maus is an academic when he’s not getting weird on stage.

And weird it was.

It felt as if Maus was possessed and channeling multiple voices as he changed pitch, screamed, punched himself and thrashed around the stage. It was touching, raw and a bit sad as Maus sang in obvious anguish. It was powerful too. The words and Krautrock bass-lines seemed to be the only thing holding him together.

Though he recently released Addendum, the show featured songs from his whole discography. “Teenage Witch,” “Touchdown,” and “The Combine” from his late 2017 album Screen Memories got a big crowd response. The short songs and solo nature of the act allowed Maus to cover a lot of ground as he reached deep into his repertoire to pull out the eminently danceable glam synth tracks from Love is Real, such as “My Whole World’s Coming Apart.”

Half way through, the fluttering tracks from We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves loosened up the crowd as Maus asked us to “Keep Pushing On.” One really felt like putting all the tragedy into the air and dancing it out.

Throughout the set, and especially towards the end, Maus even played some of the longer synth ballads from his debut album Songs, such as “And Heaven Turned To Her Weeping.” The somber tone of the songs was met with enthusiasm from the crowd, and while Maus did not speak to the crowd except in song, his performance spoke volumes.

Maus’s performance felt like a profound act of mourning and release that spread through the crowd. His body, his voice and his music all worked together to give the set a visceral feel. At one point he put the microphone to his temple as he beat against his own skull and one could hear the sound, literally feel the music.