CAMBRIDGE -- Spiders in love. Cat burlesque. Beef and brains. Skeletons and snakes. The junior high health class hum of a film projector flashing grainy, cut-and-paste images onto a portable screen, set to weird funhouse music and random noise. And this was just one of the openers -- a series of shorts by experimental filmmaker Martha Colburn -- that warmed up the sold-out, all-ages crowd that packed the Middle East Downstairs Tuesday night.
Then things got weirder, and even better, when Deerhoof came out.
Over the course of seven albums released in a decade (the latest is ''The Runners Four"), Deerhoof, an art-damaged noise-pop foursome from San Francisco, has succeeded at something that's very hard to do: It has made records and built a devoted international following on the sheer power of its imagination. And it's a mad, wild imagination, rippling with ideas and abandon that test the limits of both pop and, occasionally, patience. As often as not, you're likely to be left scratching your skull while gazing at Deerhoof, listening for clues.
During a 60-minute set that was striking for its combination of precision and unpredictability, the band, not exactly fronted by the diminutive, bird-voiced singer-bassist Satomi Matsuzaki (she stood stage left), would often start a song here and take it way over there. How, you might ask yourself, was the band ever going to find its way back home to the melody? Maybe it didn't want to. Maybe that was the point.
The band members rarely talked to the audience except to thank it, preferring instead to face one another and stand in their corner of the cracked, curious universe they were creating, shattering, and rebuilding from scratch. In sound and texture, Matsuzaki's voice -- light as air, childlike as a nursery rhyme -- was frequently more interesting as an embellishing instrument than anything specific she had to sing, so the fact that her lyrics were barely audible at times didn't seem to matter much.
The band began with ''This Magnificent Bird Will Rise," with Matsuzaki chanting little more than a succession of ''doodoodoodoos" -- soft nonsense syllables ladled over the churn and whirl and pop-art explosions of guitars and drums. Unlikely as it might have seemed on the surface, that's where all those Who comparisons came in -- that and the fact that Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier was a visceral force unto himself, a roil of manic, Moon-ish energy who didn't so much drive the beat as stab at it with fills and spray it with tumbling rolls.
Nestled inside the din of songs titled ''That Big Orange Sun Run Over Speed Light," ''Rainbow Silhouette of the Milky Rain," and ''Spirit Ditties of No Tone" were pockets of oddly perfect pop epiphanies replete with rattling riffs and glistening power chords. Over here was a dark detour of jabbing noise. Over there, a bridge that felt like a slice of pure sunshine.