By the time the Books hopped onstage, the crowd at the Armory was getting pretty well versed in the art of live music playing along to films. Since the night started, they’d lounged at cabaret tables through all kinds of science-class film collages, animation, rotoscoped trees, and the accompanying playful racket brought on by half a dozen locally-connected bands trying to keep up. The Books' curveball was actually their lack of experimentation — the cello/bass duo pulled out recent videos for “Hypnotherapy,” “Cold Freezing Night,” and “the one about geese,” all tightly orchestrated but almost entirely pre-recorded. Nothing seemed spur-of-the-moment or interpretive, but it was the end of the night, the drinks were free, and dammit, who cared at that point? I’d watch them do the video with the floating psychotherapists’ heads and hypno-swirlies 30 more times if I could.
It was a first-time pilgrimage to the new Center for the Arts at the Armory for much of the sold-out crowd at this initial installment of the “Split/Signal” film/music festival as patrons in gallery-opening casual wear toted wine glasses (or double-fisted beers) from the open bar. Enormous, glowing exposed ductwork vaulting up from the shadows were lit like props at Universal Studios. Green laser stars projected across the room. Hovering above was a huge screen, where a handful of punchy short films were projected. It was like your first time at a local rock show all over again, except with films instead of bands (and a huge crowd instead of just the three other bands). It made me wish I were carrying DVDs full of demo videos to hand out. Alas, I’ve never made a movie in my life.
When a three-second clip of ’70s childbirth footage found its way into the collage behind Black Yodel’s dissonant free-improv set, the gasps and groans it set off made me fear some kind of campy John Waters uprising from the crowd, but it died down as the footage flipped over to insects, cola bottling plants, and horses jumping off diving boards. Roger Miller from Mission of Burma jammed deep, springy drones on guitar while slow tracking shots of towering, abandoned oil refineries and insane asylums played out above him.
After the Books finished up with Joanna Newsom’s “This Side of the Blue” and everyone poured out into a breezy Somerville night, one goateed filmmaker hanger-on said things hadn’t been this good in a long time. “The arts scene is so fractured here,” he said. “You get small rock shows, small film events, small gallery shows. Nothing where people can cross over. But this is how it should always be.” Then he took off down a side street toward an after party, clutching a flash drive full of videos to pimp.