Julian Casablancas is very afraid. This much I can say with certainty, having now seen him on five separate occasions. The Strokes’ wiry frontman has two distinct onstage personas: scared drunk and just plain scared. Unlike his performance at the Metro a year and a half ago, where Casablancas misjudged the extent of the stage not once but twice and had trouble staying upright, this past Sunday, a packed audience at the Tabernacle in Atlanta witnessed the latter version of the frontman. An almost catatonic Casablancas clutched the microphone and refused to let go, as his band rocketed through a set heavy on material from their latest release, Room on Fire.
While Casablancas’ petrified nervousness had a certain charm early in the Strokes’ career—a sort of fretful immaturity that heightened the drama—it now threatens to permanently define the band’s live experience. Mimicking his deer-caught-in-the-headlights pose from the “Last Night” video, Casablancas stood transfixed, staring blankly out into the sea of faces and scarcely acknowledging the fact that he was on a stage at all. Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi did their best to mitigate the paralysis, aggressively attacking their solos and gamely staggering backward toward the amps. Even the normally reserved Nikolai Fraiture looked lively as he bounced along to Fab Moretti’s steady, urgent backbeat.
But despite his bandmates’ best efforts to distract, Casablancas was clearly the focal point, and his stoicism was a damper on the admittedly brilliant songs blaring from the speakers. Although I have exempted myself from reviewing Room on Fire because I fear it would read like slobbering fanzine tripe, I will go on record here saying that Room on Fire is one of the most damn near perfect rock albums I’ve heard in some time. On a technical level, the band more than did the songs justice live. Valensi’s guitar squealed like a synthesizer from ‘86 during their rendition of current single “12:51”. Moretti’s drumming, even on demanding showcase tracks like “The End Has No End”, never faltered. And Fraiture’s sinuous bass lines unfurled with discreet yet affecting grace.
Still, Casablancas’ disinterest kept the band at an obvious distance, as though there were a glass wall between them and the audience. The few times Casablancas bothered to leave the immediate vicinity of the microphone it was either to grab a drink or light a cigarette. There were a few lighthearted moments when Casablancas seemed to let down his guard a bit. One fan’s heckling after he implored the crowd to thank the roadies and crew who “feed us and dress us up for you” prompted Casablancas to snap, “Fuck you, I’m kidding.” (Lighthearted, of course, for this band means playfully belligerent.) But odd exceptions aside, Casablancas might as well have been doing practice takes in the studio—so plain, nonchalant, and reserved was his demeanor.
In the show’s waning moments, Casablancas finally unmoored himself long enough to toss the mic and surf the crowd. Yet what should have come off as a triumphant punctuation mark more resembled a halfhearted surrender, a last ditch effort to show some genuine emotion. Unfortunately, it was nothing but a wasted opportunity. And with the Strokes arguably reaching their creative peak on record, these are opportunities that Casablancas can ill afford to waste.
Openers Kings of Leon proved that they’re more than an amusing storyline (sons of a minister embrace the devil’s music). Their southern-leaning rock ‘n roll thankfully owed a greater debt to punk than classic rock with their solos serving more as bridges than extraneous embellishments. It’s unclear whether they’ll be able to build on what they’ve started, especially considering their best song, “California Waiting,” appeared not on their recent full-length but their debut EP. Still, the crowd appeared quite satisfied with their Allman-tinged garage, and, unlike the Strokes, every band member at least made an attempt to engage the audience.