9 Apr 2005: Black Cat Washington, DC
Bloc Party is a critic’s darling, our critics at least. They’ve been clamoring for months with heady requests to cover the band’s first US tour:
“Everyone loves Bloc Party!”
“I would give my first born to see the show.”
“This is one of those records that will stay with me through the year, getting even better the more I hear it.”
“Bloc Party is going to be the band on everybody’s lips… mark my words.”
Your words? Oh, I’ll mark’em. Young as they are, I put stock in my writers—they’re generally hip to what the kids are up to. That’s why I snatched the opportunity, and the tickets, and left those younguns’ knee deep in my dust.
But how lucky is it, really? I’ve been burned by buzz bands before—I’m still trying to get over that Oingo Boingo hump—so I can say from experience that if you cling too closely to the next Simon and Garfunkel, you might end up tethered to Seals and Croft.
* * *
I’m tunneling through the crowd, hands together, spiked flat, squirming to slice between bodies. I’ve seen the Black Cat filled, but never packed like this.
I’m looking for a redhead in a green dress, one of my new writers. She doesn’t need to worry, this cowboy’s galloping days are over. I just want to put a face with a name. But this is the kind of crowd where even a tall redhead in a green dress falls by the wayside.
I snake to my usual leaning pole only to find it occupied by some smooching smoothie and a pig-tailed counterpart. Ridiculous. No one should stand between a man and his leaning pole.
Turning away, I catch sight of a flyer, its black letters waving inches above the couple:
Tonight’s performance at the Black Cat 4/9/05 is being filmed. The images photographs and likenesses obtained from tonight’s performance will be recorded.
Posterity right? Well, this is history; that’s what my writers were trying to impress on me. “Listen you old fart! These guys are gonna be HUGE.”
Of course they are, but old fart that I am, I have my reservations. I’ve seen summer bands come and go. I know who Bloc Party are and, more importantly, who they’re going to be.
The band’s debut EP was impressive, a striking collection of jumpy rock tunes smattered with dancey pop rhythm. These Brits draw their inspiration from a host of ‘80s influences—Gang of Four, The Cure, etc.—interspersing melodic and distorted guitar lines and cawing, emotive vocals. But they’ve hardened the edges. Like their brethren Franz Ferdinand and Hot Hot Heat, their sound is only “contemporary” because they amp up the guitar and vocals for a more searing sound. Edgy rock, steeped in past pop? Sounds like summer to me.
Everyone’s excited; The Man’s marketing dollars are down; who am I to cast doubt? So what if the band’s full-length, Silent Alarm, doesn’t deliver everything the EP promised? So what if I’ve seen this all before? Perspective is not what we’re looking for; even if I have something bad to say, it won’t matter. These guys have nothing to prove. It’s already been decided: Bloc Party are the chosen, this year’s summer sensation.
Of course, there is the matter at hand. It’s still spring and everyone, even the boss’ son, has to go through the motions. In theory this small-club tour is about the band proving itself on the road, winning our hearts and minds. But screen-printed T-shirts in Urban Outfitters don’t lie; these guys have the job, no matter what they do.
But just for the heck of it, let’s make what they do an issue:
The band emerges to soft piano tinkering, lead singer Kele Okereke flanked by a procession of serious, somber bandmates. They’re not nervous, not excited. They’re rockers, aloof but steady. It’s time to bang through another “interview.”
The group opens with: “Like Eating Glass”.
WHOA! There’s an immediate surge, the quick permeation of some unexpected energy. The group hammers through the song, a pogo worthy dance-rock track that would make a younger man scuttle. Many younger men do.
It’s not necessary, but it looks like the boss’ son has dressed to impress. As the song closes, the crowd levels an enormous cheer, a roar that startles the senses. The fans, too, are already rehearsing for bigger venues, acting less like a club crowd and more like a small cross section of an arena. They’re right to scream, to pitch their bodies in peaking fury. Grizzled and gray as I am, I will admit, these boys are electric. Their execution is flawless.
But I fear that they’ve peaked early. Three songs in the band jumps into “Banquet”, an unassailable pop single, one you’ll hear in a few months blasting from open car windows. I’ll admit it; I was waiting for this one to close the show. It’s catchy paint-by-numbers alterna-pop sure, but it’s also a lot of fun. Screaming sound follows guitarist Russell Lissack’s slow, solid strokes. This is when the dancing really starts; heads bob and elbows shake. These hips aren’t what they used to be, so I acknowledge the urge with a little foot tap.
Okereke’s mouth is wide open. He’s releasing something, some pitch-perfect frenzy imparted by the deity of pop. Between songs his toothy grin, imprints a stark white against the shadow of his dark skin. He’s got reason to smile. Whether you love pop, hate it, or just dismiss it, this man will be its master, for a while at least.
The band’s set continues with a host of other catchy dance numbers bookended with less memorable tunes. The latter, “The Marshals are Dead” for instance, are characterized by slicing, disjointed guitar and half-shouted, half-spoken lyrics. They lack the punch of the poppier numbers. So maybe these boys could have used a little longer to incubate. It’s a shame. They’ve got five or six great numbers and another handful that are just okay. Still, it’s all in the delivery and even these sleepers are approached with charged, earnest resolve.
After 10 songs, the boys wave their goodbyes and disappear. I’ve seen this happen before, when a band gets big before its back-catalog. When I first saw the Strokes they did eleven short songs and vanished. Bad move. It wasn’t their fault, that’s all they could play, but still, a crowd’s hunger should be tamed. To do less invites riot.
Bloc Party had this well in mind. They dash off early knowing full well that the roar will call them back. They know how to make people happy. That’s why we’ve pushed them ahead of the pack.
And to be fair, they do have everything you need from a fleeting summer fling. For a while, at least, they’ll give me something to get excited about and something to fuel my anti-pop tirades. As long as I don’t stay too long on either side of the fence I won’t become a raging asshole or a raging idiot. It’s pop. I can enjoy it for what it is or hate it for what it is, and move on.
The band closes with a fiery rendition of “Pioneers”, building slowly then exploding into the spacey refrain. Guitars drop out and the words ring bare “We will not be the last, we will not be the last, we will not be the last we will not be the last we will not be the last we will not be the last”.
No, you won’t. But you can stay the summer.
// Notes from the Road
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