The only other time I’d seen the Kaiser Chiefs was back in 2005 in the wilting, sweltering heat of the Austin City Limits music festival. The Chiefs were touring in support of their debut disc, Employment, a breakthrough blast of nervy energy, catchy beats, and gorgeous hooks. Despite a limited repertoire, lead singer Ricky Wilson bore his role as showman and ringleader with unparalleled fitness and vigor. My most vivid memory is of him scaling and scampering up the lighting truss, swinging and singing at the same time.
Some three years later you’d think I’d be ready for him. Or was that stunt back in the heat of a Texas afternoon just youthful posturing? Having taken the stage to the orchestral strains of the Who’s “5:15”, the Kaiser Chiefs quickly set in motion their plan to shake and rattle the walls and dance floor of Chicago’s Park West theatre. As if to ensure the audience of its role tonight, Wilson took to the hardwood himself. On the second song, he swiftly scurried to the raised wall separating the dance floor from the tiered tables and booths. While singing the pulsing chorus of “Everything is Average Nowadays” he nimbly leapt onto the three-inch wide ledge and traversed the length of the wall like a high-wire walker grabbing the occasional hand of a giddy, starry-eyed fan. Not for a moment did Wilson’s stunt feel like a gimmick. He smiled with unabashed glee the whole time. By the time he made it back to center stage a fuse had been lit. The question would be how long before the explosion?
13 Nov 2008: Park West Theatre Chicago, IL
The answer came just as quickly. With the audience abuzz from Wilson’s tight rope walk, he rallied the crowd with a simple plea, “If you have any of our records, sing along to the ones you know.” Clearly the bulk of the crowd consisted of long time believers well versed in the Kaiser Chiefs’ catalogue. The opening riff of “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” ignited a release of manic energy on the dance floor. The audience became not bystanders but a surging, singing, pogoing punk chorus.
With nary a break between each tune, Wilson maintained his enthusiasm bopping and bouncing incessantly through the jittery skank of new wave gem “Na Na Na Na Naa” and standing atop stage monitors howling and shouting with bravado to the fuzzy, surfy twang and tremble of “Heat Dies Down”. The crowd, like a congregation infused with the holy spirit of rock, answered the Kaiser Chiefs’ call with raucous, raised voices. Everyone in attendance—the gangly tousled-haired teens, the girls in ballet flats and capezios, the lads in football replica kits, and even the 40 somethings with bald and thinning pates—joined as one, pulsing and dancing with a fevered frenzy.
The way Wilson and the Chiefs attack their songs one can see clearly that, while they obviously perform these tunes ad infinitum on the typical rock tour, they approach each night with the seminal zeal of rock renegades. I imagine them reveling in the mad joy of pop gems like “Ruby” or the new sing-along hit “Never Miss a Beat” at each tour stop. Could these songs ever grow rote? Not when the lads from Leeds tap the delirious energy of their adoring acolytes and, in doing so, empty their hearts and souls each night.
The secret of a Kaiser Chiefs performance lies in their inclusiveness and their ability to connect with a crowd. Though their tunes sound big and anthemic and worthy of radio airplay, the hooks are so catchy they draw the listener in, they beg to be sung along with, and they strike primal, visceral chords in every listener. Likewise, the songs are immediate and raw. A few thumping beats of Nick Hodgson’s drums and you can’t help but step in time. The first slashing, shimmering riffs of Andrew White’s guitar and your body begs to shimmy and shake. Before you notice it, the walls are broken down, there is no stage and no audience—everything is joined. You are part of one rock and roll revival, an ecstatic coming together of frenzied song and dance.
Having seemingly emptied themselves of all their zeal and passion on closer “I Predict a Riot” I would not have begrudged the Kaiser Chiefs had they not returned for an encore. Return though they did, itching and twitching for a suitably propulsive finale. The band stoked the flames with the sounds of “Can’t Say What I Mean” laced by Andrew White’s fuzzed-out bluesy Yardbirdsesque guitar work. And with the crowd ready for the final release, Wilson and company launched into perhaps their most compelling sing-along, “Oh My God”. This night the tune began with a reggaeish riff that sounded like it was cribbed from Ian Dury. Either way it was decidedly down tempo and cool. Yet, step back and get ready for the hook, or should I say, “Light fuse and wait for the report.” For the fireworks were well worth the wait. The whole dance floor jumped and bobbed in unison and howled out the hallelujah chorus: “Oh my god I can’t believe it, I’ve never been this far away from home.”
The night wouldn’t be complete without one last foray by Wilson into the audience. While the band played, Wilson made his way back to the scene of his tiptoe act and placed a microphone atop the ledge. He then admonished the peanut gallery to “put down your drinks and sing along.” The addition of their voices to those of us already in the choir only made the fire burn more brightly.