Black Heart Procession + Blonde Redhead + Calexico + Yeah Yeah Yeahs
31 Oct 2002: Irving Plaza New York
Photo credit: Stefano Giovannini
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
There is a line of people almost two blocks long in front of Irving Plaza, the three-story former off Broadway theatre hosting what may be the hippest Halloween music bash tonight. CMJ has arranged an admirable buffet of Touch and Go acts, a veritable “who’s who” plucked from the heavy rotation playlists of devoted indie rock college radio DJs.
I also seem to be the only kid in costume. While everyone has on their everyday Chuck high-tops and Dickies, I’m rocking a loud red and blue schoolgirl sailor dress ensemble complete with big fuzzy pom-poms and pigtails. Dozens of eyes follow me as I walk quickly towards the end of the line in search of pals. I’m relieved when someone familiar calls my name and I slip in about a dozen people from the front door.
It is about twenty minutes to show time and the line is crawling. Security is loathe to let in more than the pre-determined number of badge holders—what that number is will forever remain a tight-lipped mystery. Everyone is grumbling and anxious not to miss quirk rock openers Enon. Two of my party can’t stand the wait and desert. There is another call for tickets, and two more of us go inside. I’m left with another badge holder as the clock ticks closer to the hour. We make the best of it by goofing off and painting her face with black theatrical makeup. Voila, instant disguise.
Eight o’clock has come and gone and we are still just a few feet from the door. The people in front of us whimper each time someone exits the venue. We all know that each person that leaves is a spot for us. We are jumping up and down, but the gruff door man keeps his back to us. The wait is agonizing—we really want to see Enon. Their latest release, High Society, is an effervescent gem that makes me shimmy and hop. Bassist Toko Yasuda takes a few more vocal turns than previous releases. Her sweet lilt is addictive when set against guitarist and mastermind John Schmersal’s noise schemes. A large group of people are walking out the front door now. We hoarsely stage whisper to the door man to let us in, and finally he relents. We rush as fast as we can through the coat check and drink wrist band check points to find Enon is over. I ask a friend how she found the performance. “Oh, that was Enon?” she says. We shake our heads and console ourselves with a drink from the bar.
While the bands are changing over, Irving Plaza is projecting upcoming show dates and a mish mash of scary, silly images on a screen right in front of the stage. This is a big production. I watch lots of stern security type guys walk back and forth from a door by the stage to the back of the club. I usually frequent smaller clubs, so for me, this is the equivalent of a stadium show. At the merch tables they are giving away free Touch and Go samplers. I am amused that you must have your hand stamped first if you want a copy. Limit one per customer.
Not too much time elapses before The Black Heart Procession take the stage. When the movie screen lifts, all band members are in masks. Singer Pall Jenkins is in a rubber horse head mask. What is really impressive is that he is able to smoke without igniting himself. He exhales and it wafts out of the nose holes. Very spooky. Their set is elegant and sad, playing like one long melancholy song. The bluesy dirges are best when complimented by Jenkins saw playing and a member on lap guitar. Listening to Jenkins, I know I should be thinking Neil Young, but every now and then I get a hint of a slow and heavy Black Sabbath Ozzy Osbourne. Listen to Amore Del Tropico and tell me if I am crazy.
Blonde Redhead may be the sexiest band ever, or at least currently. Watching guitarists Kazu Makino and Simone Pace onstage together is like staring too long at a couple privately embracing. They play to each other with a tender and unmistakably passionate energy. Makino often seems introspectively absorbed with the ground or a far off point. Pace looks mostly at her and gives little approving nods. Drummer Amadeo Pace looks mostly at his identical brother while effortlessly flicking his drumsticks over his toms and snare. The compositions of this unique band are innovative and compelling in a way that resonates deep within their audience. It is as if they are pressing on piano keys and each key is a trigger that tugs a wire within the listener. There are keys for longing, possession, despair, and ecstasy—and Blonde Redhead travel fast and skillfully over the whole keyboard. I have been to performances where audience members seem beside themselves with built up sexual energy and delightedly holler as if in response to Makino’s ragged and haunting screams. Tonight’s performance is satisfying but somehow seems quenched by the presence of an unidentified lurking bald bass player stage left and some haggling between Makino and the monitor guy. Also new is a song in which Makino abandons her ultra sweet vintage Italian guitar for a turn behind the keyboard. The brightest spot could be “In Particular” off Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, but it all over much too quickly for my taste.
Tucson’s Calexico fuses Ennio Morricone drama with bright mariachi and country. They have turned out at least eight albums and nine singles since their 1996 formation. The creative songwriting duo of Joey Burns and John Conventino are obsessed with southwestern literature and their songs have that cinematic, slow-death-in-the-desert feel. The six member band is all decked out in skull masks, turning ho hum Halloween into a sort of Mexican Day of the Dead fiesta. They are very talented, but I am weary, so I watch from the upstairs lounge. Their hit from last year, named for a Carlos Fuentes novel is given a solid performance toward the end of the set.
!!! (Chik Chik Chik or Pow Pow Pow depending on how you feel) win the costume and the congeniality awards. The rowdy septuplet have come as giant human disco balls. Chunks of reflective glass are even glued to their super hero-Mexican wrestler-space lizard ski masks, and when the stage lights come on, the whole place is swimming with reflected specks. Like an exuberant frat guy, singer “Nic” is quick to get the party started. They play maybe only four songs, seeing as how each one is a ten minute grand funk epic, complete with instrumental breakdowns and hand-clapping, and dancing band members busting out their Temptations dance routines. After I’ve adjusted to the fish bowl effect of the lights and the occasional bright rave-like flashes that are coming from some floods facing the audience, I see that everyone is dancing. The people in front of me have thrown their hands in the air in a way reminiscent of MTV Spring Break parties and without irony. I keep expecting a beach ball to appear and bounce from head to head. Nic makes a point to mock the non-dancing photographers and “industry people” at the front of the room, and everyone loves it. This is booty shaking funk, unashamed and unapologetic. The spectacle is so fun and feel good, I pocket my horror and watch it unfurl much like I would watch the Blue Man Group or Stomp if I were stuck on a cruise with my parents. They bring down the house, or at least half of it, because when they leave the stage sweating and fifteen minutes later than they should, a good chunk of the audience surprisingly leaves.
Last stop on this wickedly fun haunted hayride are the tongue-in-cheek art garage darlings the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When a cute young lad from England, just in town for CMJ asks me to describe them, I admit there is a little eye-rolling and use of the word “sensational.” “But you’re still here,” he pointedly remarks. And yes, while I am not entirely smitten with singer Karen O or her entourage of beer throwing, asymmetrical-hair-wearing believers, those YYYs can put on a bit of a show. I especially like drummer Brian Chase, who when not busy touring Europe or posing down in glossy magazines, lends his skills to Brooklyn math rockers The Seconds. He also has a great sense of humor as he has come to the party dressed as Ms. O and greets fans with a squeaky drag message before climbing behind his kit. He spends the rest of the show hilariously adjusting the straps on his dress while pounding and rattling away. Guitarist Nick Zinner is in his customary black threads and holds down the fort with his signature fuzzy squawks. He is the serious Oscar to Karen O’s zany, twirling Felix who tonight seems to be extra slurry between songs. A piercing version of “Art Star” is early in the set and kicks off a dancing frenzy by the loyal dozen in the front, with later songs dedicated to “my love Angus” (of the Liars) or “my girls.”
A fun and sweet performance, but it is well after the witching hour and I am itching to get out of my disguise and dig into whatever candy might be leftover at home.
// Notes from the Road
"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.READ the article