26 May 2009: The Aragon Ballroom Chicago
If this performance at the Aragon Ballroom yielded a caricature, she would have appeared as an enormous, radiant smile peering out from beneath a mop of dark hair, wearing yellow zebra print tights. But not even a caricature could be as animated as the real Karen O. Delivering a performance in which few are capable, Miss. O danced, jumped, spewed water in the air like a fountain, and stopped just short of swallowing her mic whole. It was really just another night out for rock’s reigning queen.
As the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took the stage, lead singer Karen O gave a hearty greeting to the ecstatic crowd before taking her place front and center with the mic raised up high above her head. As she stood in wait, the audience quickly picked up again and before the opening notes could even be heard she responded with a smile that quickly spread into a laugh. It was a look she would wear often throughout the night. The sound of a piano slowly dipped in behind her and from beneath a giant glowing eyeball, which adorned the back of the stage, she began to sing the opening to “Runaway” from the band’s 2009 release It’s Blitz!. The stark, stripped down intro was somewhat disarming coming from a band recognized for their big sound and even bigger stage antics. Karen slowly moved about the stage, swaying from side to side and pausing for effect. While the song is one of the moodier pieces from the new album it felt much lighter here, as both she and the crowd seemed incapable of suppressing their excitement.
It was a beautiful opener but the mounting energy made it feel like the calm before a storm. The moment the song ended, the storm rolled in with the stomping rhythm of “Black Tongue”, from the band’s first full-length record. The pace quickened instantly, as Karen O came to the front of the stage with a renewed vigor and full of bounce. In one quick motion she shed a piece of her outfit and as a puzzling looking kimono turned into a strange looking leotard, the show was in full swing. To mark the occasion she even managed to set off a few timely blasts of confetti. After a Cramps cover, the band went back to their first LP again with “Man”, and delivered on its dissonant vocal and guitars, set atop clashing drums. Sandwiched in the middle of the set was a pair of songs—“Gold Lion” and “Cheated Hearts”—from 2006’s Show Your Bones, an album which did not get much attention throughout the evening. Unfortunately, it seems as though this album is destined for a fate it doesn’t entirely deserve. It had the difficult task of following up the band’s hugely successful first album (a task made all the more impossible when factoring in how that record sold huge numbers on the back of a song—“Maps”—that was a bit of an anomaly to the rest of the album) and although Show Your Bones has some peaks, it does feel a bit like an old friend with whom you no longer share anything in common. That place in a relationship where both parties enjoy getting together but each time the meetings become more and more infrequent.
The band slowed things down a bit for two new tracks. First came “Skeletons” with its huge instrumental hook that closes out the entire second half of the song (and is eerily reminiscent to the one that closes out the Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #4”). “Soft Shock”, one of the band’s more intimate tracks, even with its incredibly ambiguous lyrics, followed. The shift in tone of the show almost resembled the same shift in tone the new record took. It is a real departure in the band’s sound, but judging from the crowd reaction as the opening notes to “Zero” began, it is enthusiastically welcomed. Sadly though, gone are the screeching vocals, Nick Zinner’s jagged guitar licks, and that inexplicable bit of New York grit that appears on their earliest work. In its place is a slick, glossy, pop-rock sound, which feels miles away from their early days. While shifts of this nature can be dangerous ground for some bands, it seems to work for them on just about every level. There is an undeniable charm to the new album that has a way of sticking with you long after you have finished listening, and the watching them perform confirms that they haven’t completely shaken off that grit.
With a towel hanging around her neck Karen O began dedicating the next song, first to the opening act, then the touring keyboard player and finally, “… to all the lovers in Chicago tonight,” in a shout that would have made Paul Stanley look on with admiration. The moment sounds absurd but Karen O has a way of making the absurd feel so right. It led into an acoustic version of “Maps”, the bands most recognizable song, which was altered just enough to give it a little added weight. There was no time to linger over the slowed down reworking of their hit though, because the set came crashing to an end with an explosive “Y Control”.
The most immediate evidence of their evolution was served up during the encore. Donning a pink mask that concealed her entire head, Karen O greeted us as a wall of synth with a serious disco backbeat built in the background for “Heads Will Roll”. It’s a track from the new record whose raison d’être is to get people dancing and on that lone level it worked. It was followed by “Art Star”, from the band’s first EP, which casually pits moments of sheer violence together with one of the most detached, airy “Do Dee Do” type hooks, in a way that makes it seem natural. Finally, “Date with the Night” gave us our final send off, capping a set that amazingly only lasted about an hour. Under most circumstances it would be easy to feel cheated with such a quick show but the band did pack a lot into that 60 minutes. Plus, to witness what Karen O gives to the audience in her performances, it hardly seems right to expect more. Anyway, there is a sense that even if they had played for three hours one would leave with the same feeling of wanting more.