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The Dandy Warhols

(21 Nov 2003: Popstarz @ The Scala at King's Cross — London)


Gazing out over a grimy dance floor littered with crushed cans of Red Stripe, Zia McCabe (keyboard, key bass, tambourine, additional vocals) briefly considers my query of why the Dandys chose to play a free show at the biggest alternative gay club event in the UK. “Because f*gs like us!” she exclaims, then proffers this as the same reason that the band has such a loyal queer following in its hometown of Portland, Oregon. She then spins on her heals and disappears through a side door offstage as the Smiths’ “What Difference Does It Make?” rises to a blaring crescendo through the speakers—an appropriate anthem for that wondrous London club night called Popstarz. Popstarz is one of the most famous gay nights in Europe, and is consistently ranked as one of the best (also welcoming clubbers of all sexual persuasions and open minds): a wide variety of looks from prep to punk to Goth come together weekly to stomp upon the three dance floors of the venue which feature house, R&B, indie rock, and Britpop/trash.


Given its ability to draw such a wide variety of folks throughout Greater London, Popstarz was an ideal venue for the Dandys to play to promote their new album Welcome to the Monkey House. It is indeed no small feat to claim that the band has graced the floors of the Popstarz, which has also been the stomping ground of such pop idols as Mick Jagger, Blur, Elastica, Siouxsie Sioux, and Suede. Mix that reputation with some shit-kickin’ indie rock from the American Westcoast in a churning sea of queer dancers hours after George W. Bush has been booed out of London and the result is a recipe for an intoxicating night, if not a political one. In a gray tank top and a tatty cap, lead vocalist Courtney Taylor-Taylor led his entourage on the stage erected in the indie rock room and dived into “Not If You Were the Last Junky on Earth”. A big hit in the UK, the band banged out the song with its usual, sometimes irritating, nonchalance. The same applies to the second song of the set, “Bohemian Like You”, inducing an enthusiastic uproar from the dancers, which became a swaying mass under the hit’s spell.


Admittedly, it was surprising that the band chose to open the set with its two best known UK singles—a fact that was to demonstrate later that many Popstarz-goers are not extremely familiar with the band’s non-singles, and thus slowed the tempo of the swaying mass of queer folk below the stage. Finishing a mediocre version of “We Used to Be Friends”, a brass player clutching a trumpet came onstage, his long and shaggy brown bangs masking his face. Upon his arrival, the band slowly started up “Get Off”, which it continued to perform in a lulled manner, deviating from the guitar-heavy zest of the studio version. Unfortunately, this lull carried into the next song, whose potential to harness the drowsy crowd was not attempted. Rather, Courtney Taylor-Taylor began “The Last High” with a longer and slower introduction, stretching out the lyrics over a backdrop of soft musical movements that greatly varied from the studio version, which features an array of synthesized sounds that sounds like quarks and leptons colliding under water. The sophistication of such instrumentation was abandoned for a commendably more organic performance, but one that nonetheless progressed at a slower pace and thus dampened the enthusiastic energy that marked the Dandys’ entrance onto the stage.


Despite the drowsy mood set by the band in the latter two-thirds of the show, Taylor-Taylor superbly substituted for the falsetto vocals performed by Simon LeBon on “Plan 9”, which was also missing some of the quirky sounds of the studio version, but which were made up for by Taylor-Taylor’s efforts to deliver the song with high vocals that merged into an aural collage with supporting vocals by McCabe and guitarist Peter Holmstrom. Soon after, the band played “Girls Are Better Than Boys”, and closed the show with a more intimate stage moment: Taylor-Taylor asked the audience if it could sing along to the chorus of “Everyday Should Be a Holiday” and began an acoustic version of the song. Slow and lovely, the song seemed to justify the slowness of the aural procession before it, even turning into a comedic rendition as Taylor-Taylor crooned with a staid expression alongside McCabe, who jubilantly swayed, mouthing the words to the chorus as she rhythmically tapped a Budweiser bottle toward the audience. While this comic relief indeed had its high points, it was a shame, considering the night’s potential for engaging in alternative politics with a very leftist crowd, that the band did not comment on the massive anti-Bush demonstration staged in London’s Trafalgar Square just the day before, celebrate the departure of G.W. Bush from London only hours before the band’s gig, or praise the recent passage of gay civil unions by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.


But given the quality of the audience and the venue, the Dandys’ performance, though disappointingly mellow, transformed the space in a strange way. As most queer dance venues feature loud and repetitive beats that spiral into mindless loops, the band seemed to counter the stereotype of queer subculture by opening its gig with what we most expected—loud and fast sing-along singles that got the audience revved up. Following the opening numbers with slower songs seemed to transform the space, transform the mood, and thus transform the stereotype of what gay boyz and grrrrls are “supposed” to listen to—itself a most conscious endeavor of Popstarz as a major alternative gay venue. Chatting with Holmstrum later, I asked for his take on how the night went: “This gig was exactly what I needed. I was 17 again, the white noise, the amps were on! I was drunk and blasting at a college fraternity party with not a care in the world. It was grand!” While it may be dubious to surmise that analogizing the show to a frat party renders it a believable “grand experience”, there is no doubt that Londoners love the Dandy Warhols, and that Popstarz is the ideal cosmopolitan space to feature such acts and transform perceptions of queerness along the way.

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