I can’t recall a single political lyric on any Toro y Moi release. Toro y Moi, formerly the solo project of Chaz Bundick and now the name for his full band, has never been one to protest loudly. A modest American flag hanging on a guitar amp Thursday night was the most political I’ve ever seen Bundick and his band get, on stage, on record, or in interviews. And yet, this Toro y Moi performance at the UC Theatre, occurring only two days after the results of the election set in, was a political one, and it was important.
At every Toro y Moi show, it’s abundantly clear that representation in music matters. Chazwick Bradley Bundick, son of a Filipino mother and African American father, is part of a still too-small contingent of prominent people of color in indie rock. His presence on stage was certainly a contributing factor to the crowd composition: young, diverse, and active.
For Bundick and many in the audience, mere existence in this country has become politically charged with the events of this week. The simple act of living the way one does became contrary to the upcoming administration.
In front of me at the UC Theatre was a group of Berkeley High School students, and I couldn’t help but overhear their buzzy discussion of their protests. The day prior to this show, their entire school, including many teachers, walked out. They walked through the streets to the UC campus in a demonstration against the election of a poisonous fanatic. The kids seemed to have lost contact with each other during the day’s protests and were sharing small stories about what they’d seen and done, and their thoughts in general.
These high schoolers, in the middle of a week full of sadness and anger, were dancing the hardest out of anyone for the entirety of the concert.
To be clear: Bundick did not address politics at all for the entirety of the show, and I think this was the best decision he could have made. Instead, he provided a space of comfort, distraction, and warm, danceable music for everyone there, who could find peace amidst the stress of the week. The elephant in the room disappeared completely in the face of so many people experiencing real, genuine contentment in the tunes of Toro y Moi.
Toro y Moi’s current incarnation is one of a straightforward psychedelic rock band, soaked in sweeping effects pedals, jamming out to songs about love with lyrics brushed in broad strokes. With the addition of a second live percussionist, the live renditions had a fuller sound than the concert film and live album filmed this August, Live from Trona.
Toro’s last album, What For? (2015), has gone through a remarkable transition in the band’s live shows. Last summer, I saw one of the first shows after they began touring that album. I remember some nearby members of the audience groaning audibly whenever Bundick reached for his guitar instead of his keyboard, because it meant another new song that sounded, at that point, relatively weak in comparison to his older material. For an audience already hesitant to accept Bundick working outside his comfort zone of chillwave R&B, the thin sound of the live renditions of new material was, at the time, especially unwelcome.
This show at the UC Theatre was a world away, with the crowd cheering at recognizing the opening strums of every What For? song the band played. Whether it was new arrangements or simply more experience playing the songs live, Toro y Moi tore through every one of the tracks on the setlist with zeal. The band confidently closed the show with the album’s closer, “Yeah Right,” bringing up openers The Mattson 2 to fill in as a third guitarist and third percussionist.
This tour’s setlist also brought out some fan-favorite older tracks that have been scarce in live shows for years. One of these was my personal favorite Toro song, “How I Know” from Underneath the Pine (2011), which has without a doubt the best chorus Bundick has ever written. Other choice setlist picks included “You Hid” from Causers of This (2010) and “I Can Get Love” from Freaking Out (2009), a song written and released while “Toro y Moi” was just the name for Bundick’s solo production project.
The biggest crowd reaction of the night was the explosion of cheers and phone cameras raised as Bundick played the opening chords of “Rose Quartz,” a song featuring Caribou-esque synth layering from 2013’s Anything in Return. A slow-building song with a simple, sample-based refrain of “‘Cause I feel weak!” isn’t an obvious candidate for a show-stopper in Chaz Bundick’s catalog, but that’s what it’s become, and it’s very effective in what it does.
Toro y Moi announced a new collaborative project, Toro y Moi Meets the Mattson 2, only a few days before this show. While fans didn’t get to see any live debuts of the songs on this upcoming release, the live strength of the band’s new material finally makes it clear that the latest shift in Toro y Moi’s sound deserves the breathing room of a second album to explore itself fully. As someone who was once a bitter skeptic of their new direction, I am genuinely very excited to see this iteration of the band reach its full potential.
Written by Matt Sater
Photos by Mateo Savala