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Stardeath and White Dwarfs

(6 May 2010: Subterranean — Chicago)

You may have heard of Stardeath and White Dwarfs (SDWD) attached to legendary musicians The Flaming Lips and Dark Side of the Moon, but have you heard their original material?
Until this past month, the Oklahoma natives have been furiously touring the country, playing sold-out shows and making late-night TV appearances under the wings of their mentors The Flaming Lips. In early May, SDWD briefly parted ways with The Lips and embarked on a short string of shows around the U.S. After seeing the band open for The Lips last month in Milwaukee I became quite fond of the smaller-scale band, and intently absorbed their music.


My initial introduction to the band was special in the sense that they had a similar chromatic stage presence as The Flaming Lips; between the lights, effects, iridescence, visuals and florid sound, I figured their name had gotten around, and that their Chicago stop would be sold-out. Turned out I was wrong: the turn-out was sparse, and there could not have been more than 60 people in attendance (a rough estimate on my part).


While the head count was slightly shocking, I was relieved that there was room to move, and that people were not crammed on top of one another. The space was on the narrow side, garnished with blood red walls, a black and white checkerboard floor, wooden pillars, ornate light fixtures, a life-size figure sculpture, and an upstairs that overlooked the entire scene. The stage itself was low to the ground and close to audience reach. Tucked in the far left corner of the stage was a spiraling wrought-iron staircase reserved for performing artists only. As the band set up the stage they tiptoed down each step, grasping the railing in hopes of avoiding sliding embarrassment. Beer ranged from three to six dollars, which is rare for a Chicago setting, making Subterranean a hidden gem as far as good venues go. The only down side was the sound system was slightly overblown causing some deafness the following day.


SDWD played approximately 45 minutes, possibly the shortest headlining set I have witnessed to date. It felt that as soon as the band climaxed, it was time to wind down. During their lean set the band performed every song off their 2009 debut The Birth out of order, plus some extras. The band illuminated the stage with circular flashing LED lights, strobes and fog. Dennis Coyne (vocals, keyboard, guitar, Theremin) stood front and center, decked out in a one-piece jumpsuit complete with racing strips, stirrups and bare feet. His demeanor came across as eccentric, sheepish and dainty, which was matched by his docile vocals. To Coyne’s right was James Young (guitar) with a wily bush of hair, in the back Matt Duckworth (drums), and to the left Casey Joseph (bass, keyboards). 


SDWD heavily relied on their rhythm section, which had dynamic chemistry and drive. Duckworth and Joseph consistently surged the music forward with a heavy groove that kept fan’s hips swaying. Joseph alone was a marvel for a bulk of his left arm was in a cast, though it did not seem to bother him.  The two shined during their duet “Those Who Are From the Sun Return to the Sun”, a number intended strictly for drums and bass. Fog billowed off the stage, thickening the atmosphere and disguising the venue as a rave. As strobes pulsated to the beat the audience roared in excitement, and Coyne and Young disappeared up the mysterious spiral staircase. Once “Sun” wound down Coyne and Young returned to the stage, and flawlessly transitioned the grooving duet into a cover of Pink Floyd’s “On the Run”. The tripped-out dance party whirled on, and I felt my heartbeat rapidly pulsate as if I were racing time.


After the raging moment of instrumental bliss, the fog ceased and the audience was returned to a state of clarity. SDWD broke into a series of tunes that were lethargic and thick, powerful enough to put one into a swaying trance. Amongst those tunes were “Keep Score” and “The Birth”, which included a rip-roaring guitar pick up through a gritty prog-rock lull. Bringing the show to an end was a measured rendition of Madonna’s “Borderline”. The song started off musically minimal, with little to no embellishments besides hints of color from keyboards. In pure gradual dramatics, SDWD raised the bar with cymbal crash after cymbal crash, which pushed the song vertically and drove it skywards. Gradually the rest of the instruments commenced in a bang, topped off with a piercing solo from Young. As “Borderline” crescendoed, SDWD managed to hold onto the calm demeanor they started with.


Once SDWD blew threw their limited material, the audience was hungry for more. Pleas were made to continue playing in which Coyne remarked: “That’s all the songs we know.”


When I mentioned the band in a review last month I compared them to The Flaming Lips’ old days, and I have to say I was not completely accurate with that comparison. SDWD certainly encompasses some of the noise aspect of their counterparts 23 years ago, but in reality they are more melodic, progressive and less experimental. Watching and listening to SDWD in a smaller setting was a completely different experience from seeing them open for The Lips in a theater fit for a king. Standing on their own legs, separated from their forefathers, it was easier to hear the band’s personality and direction. It was also easier to decipher that SDWD indeed have minds and skills of their own. They are not merely replicas of The Lips as many reviews imply, though it is clear where they received their performance education.

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