Over the next three weeks, Mac DeMarco’s solo tour will cover just about 5,221 miles and visit 14 more venues as the Canadian singer-songwriter marks the end of his six-year tenure at the Captured Tracks label plus the launch of his own imprint, duly titled Mac’s Record Label, which will be distributed through Universal Music Group’s Caroline.
On Monday — in a sold-out downtown Phoenix alleyway that is 2,157 miles from where DeMarco played to roughly eight people during a 2002 set at Crowbar in Ybor City, Florida — the 28-year-old strummed through takes on songs from his latest (This Old Dog, released last year), longtime favorites (he kicked the set off with the title track from his 2014 breakout Salad Days) and even deeper cuts like “Annie” from his sophomore release, 2012’s 2. The stripped-back renditions were delivered with the accompaniment of a new-to-Mac ‘50s or ‘60s-era Fender acoustic procured from revered Los Angeles guitar dealer Reuben Cox. And while all 18 songs definitely felt and sounded miles away from the trippy, lo-fi indie-pop DeMarco has become infamous for, the charming and infinitely hilarious entertainer made the 90-minute set feel just like home.
“For this tour I tried to write the setlist and order the songs, upbeat, downbeat,” DeMarco attempted to explain after working through a twinkling rendition of “The Stars Keep On Calling My Name” that found him laughing and taking a mulligan after his voice faltered during an attempt at the noodly, falsetto guitar solo.
“But let’s face it: It’s all downbeat. I mean, there is no beat — it’s just a guitar.”
The banter — like much of what was deployed throughout a set that included an initially off-key, completely heartfelt run through “Happy Birthday” for one of his fans — elicited a deep round of laughter from not just DeMarco, but also the crowd that packed the alley, climbed fire escapes, partied on roofs and occupied the fenestrations in a nearby parking garage just to catch a glimpse of the kid with an easy demeanor and one of the most earnest catalogs of songs on the road today.
Cigarette smoke from a butt lodged in his guitar capo wisped around DeMarco’s scrunching, ermagersh-ing face during a tranquil take on “Blue Boy.” The mellow times rolled on and on as DeMarco cheekily feigned breathlessness on the bridge of “Let My Baby Stay” and mashed his way through a spin with “Let Her Go” that found him completely butchering the keyboard arrangement on the Salad Days highlight. The evening boasted a handful of moments where DeMarco had to think through chords or get assists with melodies and lyrics, but each instance was endearing in its own special way.
“Without Me” found DeMarco mouthing the bass guitar fills. He grimaced gleefully and flashed his trademark gap-toothed smile on “Still Beating.” The space in between each song was marked with casual, stage-to-ground conversation between DeMarco and fans. The assembled even got the chance to help the songwriter crowdsurf all the way to the back of the crowd during yodel-y set-closer “Still Together.”
“I haven’t crowd surfed in about half a year,” DeMarco said before delivering another gut-busting apology. “I’m sorry. I’m a bigger boy than I was before.”
DeMarco and his Roland Juno-60 did redeem themselves, however, during a satisfying encore performance of This Old Dog closer “Watching Him Fade Away.” The song was written after DeMarco’s dad was diagnosed with cancer, which caused pops to come back up into Mac’s life after being mostly absent as he struggled with addiction (the old man actually beat the cancer diagnosis). In the hands of any other artist, the emotional tune would’ve probably pumped a few tears from audience members’ eyes, but DeMarco — at that point draped in a heavy coat that hid the fishing vest-driven, L.L. Bean-meets-Airwalk look he’d been rocking all night — had already spent the entire night getting the the crowd to belly laugh, listen and sing along with his lounge-meets-lo-fi love songs.
Instead, the song felt less like a goodbye and more like the simple ending of a chapter from a book that you’re OK with putting down and then revisiting again the next day. Beneath the panache, there’s a permanence that permeates the very special thing that DeMarco does. Unlike some art that drives you to possess it for fear of it running away, DeMarco’s songs (and the warm manner in which he moves through the set and post-show, unplanned meet-and-greets) lend themselves to a feeling that says you’ve got a friend. They’re a reminder that the world could potentially be full of people who feel like you. People who just want to have a little fun, acknowledge the hard parts of life and occasionally sing and laugh their way through them, too.
DeMarco may be leaving his longtime label, and he may be taking his tunes on a tour that finds them more naked than they’ve ever been before, but this feels like the interlude before the next great set of songs from DeMarco (who’ll get to work on an album after the tour wraps at 1919 Toole in Tucson, just 113 miles southwest of Phoenix).
He’s a bigger boy than he was before, but it’s been a wild and endearing ride that promises to bring so much more. There’s no need to apologize about that.
Listen to a playlist of songs from the show below.