It’s probably fair to say at this point that Animal Collective isn’t cool anymore. The experimental-pop and freak-folk group, who played to a sold-out Newport Music Hall on Friday night, rode the aughties indie wave to critical and commercial acclaim. But “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” its 2009 melting-Beach Boys opus, was followed up by the messy, divisive “Centipede Hz,” and as the buzzband blogosphere shifted focus to hip-hop and R&B, the band became better known as a punchline (Drum circles! Magic mushrooms!) than as a creative force.
For a certain subset of weirdos, though, Animal Collective’s discography has remained essential. This band makes music for enthusiasts — the kind of people who obsess over Panda Bear, Avey Tare and the other members of the collective’s rotating lineup, as well as gather on fan forums to pick apart cellphone footage of obscure sets to speculate on the group’s new music. These fans were out in full force on Friday night for a show that was as much a celebration of the band and its cult following as a snapshot of its art in 2016.
Opener Ratking, the forward-thinking New York hip-hop group, set the mood: all glitched-out beats under knotty bars delivered by frontman Wiki. The AnCo-Ratking connection might seem shaky on paper, but a receptive crowd packed the venue early and grooved to loopy, sequencer-and-synthpad production.
Around 9:15 p.m., the Newport went dark (the crowd took the opportunity to light their joints in unison), and Animal Collective appeared front and center. The band is known for its elaborate live stage designs — on its last tour the band played each show inside a huge toothy mouth — and this leg, in support of week-old LP “Painting With,” was no different. Three huge, vaguely cubist heads — think Easter-Island-meets-Picasso — stood out against a geometric background. Psychedelic glitch art and abstract claymation loops were projected onto the setup, the visual accompaniment to AnCo’s tripped out, overstimulating sound.
The band launched into a typical show: songs from its latest LP, a few older album cuts and shaggy, jamming outros — all stitched into a mostly seamless set. Seemingly 100 percent of campus’s longhaired men and young ladies with bangs packed the pit, and miniature dance parties and mosh pits popped up throughout the night, set to AnCo’s squelching, chirping, clicking psychedelia. The set lulled during a few of its dronier outros — and the crowd’s lack of familiarity with the playful, overstuffed “Painting With” tracks was sometimes apparent — but highlights, especially the album’s lead single “FloriDada,” had the club bouncing, particularly in the wild front row. “Daily Routine,” a fan favorite from “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” was dropped mid-set, and the crowd stretched their hands to the ceiling during the cavernous, widescreen coda — the closest I’ve been to a church in 2016.
After a bit more than an hour, Avey Tare thanked the crowd and he, co-vocalist Panda Bear and the headlamp-clad effects wizard Geologist exited, only to return for an encore momentarily. The audience was clamoring for “My Girls,” the group’s biggest and most recognizable hit, but the band had other plans, closing with the deepest of deep cuts: “Alvin Row,” the finale from its 2001 debut album.
As the lights came up and the crowd dispersed — or didn’t, as scores stayed behind hoping to chat with the band — it was clear that the fandom will endure, no matter how many hit-and-miss projects the group puts out. Nights like this one, where the kids can bliss out to the goofy music that opened musical horizons for so many of us, make sure of that.