To say that Explosions In The Sky provide an uplifting concert experience is stating the obvious, after all, the group is fucking named Explosions In The Sky. But still, by playing a concert at a cemetery, it was easy to contemplate the darker aspects of our existence, our own mortality, and our personal losses. To do this would be to honor one aspect of cemeteries – as the final resting place for human beings. But, over the course of two Saturdays, Explosions In The Sky were able transform Hollywood Forever Cemetery into something else, something cemeteries in general are not often seen as, namely, as a commemoration of life. Sure, they are literally where dead bodies lay, but they are also where we go to celebrate people’s lives, and in turn, remind ourselves to appreciate what we have while we are still alive ourselves. Not bad for a rock show.

The event itself was more than a rock show, though. On Saturday, April 23rd, a week before the concert took place, Hollywood Forever opened its metal gates to a free art show. Six artists had created installations, varying from complete video pieces to light displays to photographic art to sculpture, with each one representing a reaction to one of Explosions In The Sky’s new songs, from their recently released Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. Attendees were given a map upon entry to aid in finding the installations and were turned loose to walk around the expansive graveyard, where carefully separated art pieces were married to their song inspirations that blasted over loud speakers.

Of course, the art pieces found varying degrees of success. Matthew Lessner and Matt Amato both went with video pieces to accompany “Last Known Surroundings” and “Trembling Hands” respectively, earning the patrons’ time with evocative images, each peaking to the corresponding audio moments. Another video, by Jesse Fleming, was less successful, simply showing a countdown and count-up with plain white numbers on a black screen. I’m sure there was something to this that I was missing, and though “Be Comfortable, Creature,” was to be heard to accompany the projection, I simply did not get the point.

The festivities continued a week later on a vast lawn in the heart of the cemetery. Booked to open the show, San Francisco’s Papercuts brought their humble and tight performance to the thousands of seated onlookers. Most people had brought blankets, booze, and buddies to enjoy the evening with, providing a laid-back atmosphere that Papercuts certainly added to. Featuring cuts old (“Dear Employee” “John Brown”) and new (“I’ll See You Later I Guess”), the set was evenly paced and smooth, probably not winning new fans, but easily pleasing those who were familiar with their work. The band saved their two most expansive and memorable numbers for last, “Do What You Will” and “Do You Really Want To Know,” gracefully exiting as the Explosions fans abandoned their picnic areas and suddenly pushed to the stage. It seemed the sleepy crowd had some life to them after all.

Looking through Explosions In The Sky’s back catalog, it becomes obvious that a cemetery is the perfect place to see them. They have multiple albums that mention death in the title, countless songs that do the same, and perform music that explores all aspects of the human condition, from birth to death. So when Munaf Rayani opened the set by asking for some ghost noises from the crowd, it failed to capture the grandeur and beauty of what was about to come.

Now, I would fail horribly if I tried too hard to describe an Explosions In The Sky set. The music never really ceased, with each song fading into another until a recognizable moment would occur that resulted in an eruption of approval from the crowd. Rayani and Mark Smith spent much of their time hunched on the ground, until the music would swell and cause them to rise to the level that Michael James steadily occupied. At peak moments, Rayani would move his whole body in rhythm with the music, his hair flying wildly to the sky as the wind gusts moved the palm trees behind them. All of their faces were fierce with their intent – to capture live the pure emotion that their music expresses on record. In short, they were successful.

After an hour and twenty minutes, the music slid to a halt and the set ended by the members finally putting the instruments to rest. Rayani would be forced to return to the stage to announce to the crowd that there would be no encore, as it would be impossible for them to recreate the intensity of a set in ten minutes. This is a tradition with Explosions In The Sky, as Rayani pointed out that if fans “had been with them for the past ten years, they’d know the score.” But more memorable than this final exit, was Rayani’s speech before the band left the stage. Saying that he failed to articulate what this experience meant to the band before the set, and that it was probably “one of the more beautiful things they had ever had the opportunity to be a part of.” He then left with a final thought, one that encapsulates Explosions In The Sky’s music and performance to a T: that this night, spent amongst the living and the dead, be a reminder to us all to “keep living.”

Setlist:

Postcard From 1952
The Only Moment We Were Alone
Trembling Hands
Your Hand in Mine
The Birth and Death of the Day
Last Known Surroundings
Catastrophe and the Cure
Let Me Back In
Greet Death