3 Aug 2009: Highline Ballroom New York
The pre-album tour is a hard one to pull off. I saw Lucinda Williams do it once at a bar in Kansas City. She relied, in part, on her folksy charm: “Y’all mind if I play a few new ones for you here tonight,” she asked before launching into a memorable performance of “Righteously” from her then-unreleased album World Without Tears. The Hives did it, too. They absolutely killed at Webster Hall weeks before the release of The Black and White Album. They were, I suppose, folksy in their own way. “We are the Hives and the Hives will play for you whatever the Hives want to play” (or something to that effect). And they did. And by the end of the night we were eating out of their hand.
But these are the exceptions. All too often the pre-album show ends up like it did when REM leaned heavily on material from Around the Sun a week before its release. The result was disastrous, filled with waning attention and overly-loud applause for the songs we did know. (To be fair, even years after its release, drawing heavily from Around the Sun for a live set would be a disaster.) For the most part, fans go to a show to hear the songs they already know. Most bands cooperate by playing little else.
Even so, it makes a fair amount of sense that the Arctic Monkeys would blast through New York City a full three weeks before their solid new album Humbug drops. For starters, they played All Points West the day before and Jimmy Fallon the day after, so why not squeeze in a set at the Highline Ballroom on their day off? In addition, the whole idea of a “pre-album tour” no longer exists, as the street date means fuck all anymore. The band officially streamed Humbug in its entirety, and it is unofficially available in other outlets of dubious repute. (Lead singer Alex Turner acknowledged as much when he suggested that the number of people singing along to the new songs seemed “suspicious.”)
Add to this equation an intimate venue in the Highline and a devoted fan base, and the Arctic Monkeys pre-release show had the chance to be the rare night that got it right, and it was an opportunity they seized.
There’s a difference between being “fan friendly” and “for the fans”, and this was definitely a show that was for the fans. Their most popular album (Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not) was the least represented (only three songs, but they were the right three songs), while their second effort, Favourite Worst Nightmare, and Humbug accounted for eight and seven songs, respectively. Not only that, but two B-sides even bumrushed the show.
Still, there was plenty to appreciate for those of us who count ourselves as the more casual Arctic Monkey fan. Each subsequent record has fewer hooks than the one that came before, but the newer, heavier material benefits from being live and loud. “Pretty Visitors”, for example, is a late gem on the new record, but I never had it pegged for an opening number; turn that mother up, however, and you’ve got a crackin’ first tune, jarring tempo changes and all.
The band’s new direction may be nowhere better represented than in their lone choice of a cover, Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”. They blistered through it and in so doing buried much of the moodiness, but, as their willingness to add this song to their arsenal attests, there’s no doubt they are cultivating a sludgier, darker sound.
I admire the band for the shift in musical direction—all the more so because the easier choice would have been to make Whatever People Say I Am… over and over again—yet they would do well to note that the party was never more jumping than it was during a five-song stretch that included “Cry Lightning” (the new single), “Fluorescent Adolescent” (a certified hit from Favourite Worst Nightmare), and “The View from the Afternoon” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” (the one-two punch that initially knocked so many of us out).
There’s a lot to be said for being catchy and cool, and when the beat was driving us forward and Turner and his accent were prowling the stage in black tank top and the strobe lights flashed off-on off-on off-on, the Arctic Monkeys proved that they have hooks and cool to spare. They were so big and the space so small. The phrase “blow the roof off the place” has never been more apt.
Before the show, my friend Mike and I were talking about why the band was playing such a small venue. He suggested that maybe it was an industry thing. His wife, Emily, had seen Amy Winehouse at the Highline before she went batshit insane (Winehouse, that is; not Emily). It was mostly industry people that night. But why would the Arctic Monkeys need industry people there? And, indeed, an unscientific survey of the room revealed far more sneakers than suits.
Nonetheless, the mere mention that this was a kind of showcase helped to crystallize my thoughts about the vibe that night. This is a band that is about to release their third uncompromising album. They have adoring fans on both sides of the Atlantic. They played the main stage at All Points West on their way to the main stage at Lollapalooza. And, lest we forget, they still have the fastest-selling debut album in the history of the British charts.
Yet they played the Highline like they had something to prove.
*A final note: A band called “Modey Lemon” opened the show. I had never heard of them before that night, and over pre-show drinks Mike and I had some fun at their expense, cracking juvenile jokes about their name.
We arrived in time to catch the latter half of their set, and we were both impressed by their sound. As a three-piece, they will get a lot of not-necessarily-unfavorable comparisons to Nirvana. These comparisons will be warranted, inescapable even. But their last song, which wove in and out of itself for the better part of 10 minutes, was a gutsy way to end their part of the night. They already have a handful of records to their credit, so who knows where they will ultimately end up or how they will get there.
But on this night, anyway, they certainly won my respect.