23 Sep 2009: Radio City Music Hall New York
Where are the wild things? For one glorious night, they roamed Radio City Music Hall. Despite the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ scrappy beginnings, their entrance on this night seemed elegant and almost regal. That’s not to say that they’ve betrayed their origins/true selves in any way, but they have steadily become one of the best bands of this decade and such a thing cannot be achieved without cultivating a certain amount of grace and showmanship. Granted, some of that elegance and regality can be attributed to the venue, but, given that New York City is their hometown, the audience and myself certainly perceive the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as royalty.
Karen O. appeared as a giant bottle opener flanked by her consummate minions: Nick Zinner (guitar/keys), Brian Chase (drums) and touring member David Pajo (whatever the band needs). The opening chords of “Runaway” softly materialized, and soon the majestic sweep of the song engulfed the entire room. Youtube videos of Karen O. performing simply do not do her justice. Witnessing her in person is a captivating experience. While I never had any doubts about her abilities, it was still astonishing to watch her hold a sold-out crowd in Radio City Music Hall completely spellbound for a blazing 90-minute set.
During “Phenomena”, Karen O. prowled around the stage striking alternate poses of a boxer, exotic dancer and jaguar. After almost a decade as the singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it’s kind of amazing that it doesn’t all feel like shtick. Instead, Karen O.’s performance still feels completely intuitive and infectious. She has truly honed her frontwoman skills to a supernatural level. When she transformed into a possessed cheerleader for “Heads Will Roll” and commanded us all to “Dance, dance, dance ‘til you’re dead”, I couldn’t imagine a more sensible request at that moment in time.
Seeing Brian Chase behind his kit live only amplified what I have long held to be true: he is one of the most painfully underappreciated drummers in rock. The guy does worlds more than just keep time—he swings, stomps, accentuates, fills and, above all, dazzles. He’s as essential to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sound as Karen or Nick. Speaking of which, Mr. Zinner possesses an unmistakably unique guitar sound: an intoxicating fusion of no-wave noise, surf rock, goth textures and glam pomp. Despite this, I feel that he too is often overlooked. On stage, he reminds me of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Both axe-men do a fair amount of strutting, but they seem content to hide in the shadow of their hair and larger-than-life singers.
During an especially anthemic “Zero”, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs gave the Flaming Lips a solid run for their money by releasing giant, inflatable eyeballs into the audience and drowning Radio City Music Hall in blasts of hot pink confetti. With the huge eyeballs and pink matter floating all through the air, it looked as though a cartoon giant’s head had exploded. When paired with the sea of enraptured faces, the moment felt comically joyous.
Throughout the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ set, it was obvious that they were overwhelmed and grateful that their career had reached the point that they could not only play Radio CIty Music Hall, but fill it to maximum capacity with an enthusiastic audience ready to bestow affection and reverence upon them. If the band’s gratitude wasn’t obvious from their persistently beaming smiles and euphoria-inducing performance, Karen O. paused several times to offer sincere appreciation for the audience’s support over the years. She was actually fighting back tears as she dedicated “Maps” to the trio’s parents and exclaimed “Can you believe how far this New York band has come?” It was a genuinely touching moment, and I can’t recall ever seeing a band so humbled by their audience.
Unsurprisingly, “Maps” was part of the encore, but Radio City Music Hall was treated to a strings-enhanced, acoustic arrangement of the song. Needless to say, it melted every beating heart in the room. Even though the band plays “Maps” at every one of their shows, Karen still manages to sing “Wait, they don’t love you like I love you”, with the same yearning resolve she exhibited in the song’s heartbreaking video so long ago. The entire crowd sang along with her, and it was such an instinctually communal act that it drove any hint of cynicism into the darkest corner of the room. “Hysteric” followed in the same stripped-down fashion and completed the second-half of the encore’s emotional K.O. With “Hysteric”, the band has finally written another song that can hold it’s own with “Maps”. To hear Karen utter “You suddenly complete me / You suddenly complete me” like the breathe is slowly being knocked out of her is to hear a person in a private moment of emotional ecstasy. While that twofer would have been a perfectly lovely way to end the evening, the band went out not with a whimper, but with the blitzkrieg of “Y Control” and “Date With The Night”. On “Cheated Hearts”, Karen O. sings “Sometimes I think that I’m bigger than the Sound” and, on this night, she most definitely was.