Watching the Strokes play the second of three sold-out nights at New York’s far-from moderately sized Hammerstein Ballroom (capacity: roughly 3,000), it’s clear that a lot can change in a relatively short amount of time. Of course, this is always the case, especially with the world proceeding at the rocket-speed of the Internet age; and musical phenoms do tend to change the face of the realm of music in what seems like the blink of an eye. But what’s truly remarkable is not just how far the band has come, but how much it’s been responsible for.
For those steeped in the band-a-minute scene of present-day New York, it’s easy to forget that, at the turn-of-the-century, not only did the local scene not compare to today’s, but that there wasn’t really a scene at all. Circa 2000, NYC was a pretty musically barren place to be - a city with plenty of rock n’ roll history, but very little in the way of a present. And then, with an unassuming 11-track debut album, five city kids in thrift-store clothes came along and changed everything. Since the release of Is This It?, New York has not only returned to its glory as a hotspot for cutting-edge music, but has actually been elevated once more to a prime focus of international attention.
What the Strokes did, however, goes hand in hand with how they did it. It wasn’t by reinventing what it means to be from NYC that the quintet gained the spotlight, but rather by reminding us what it always meant. By capturing the essence of precursors like the Velvet Underground, the Ramones, Blondie, and Television and reconstituting it for a new generation, the band became the sole contemporary heir to the very same lineage that put the city on the rock map in the first place.
And now, just a few short years later, with the band members still not even out of their 20s, the Strokes stand as the fathers (or at least godfathers) to modern New York music, with everyone from Brooklyn to London citing them as an influence. So where does that leave an essentially young band that, just five years on, is already viewed as the established order, or the soon-to-be old guard?
Well, for one thing, as they so clearly showed with the recent release of third album First Impressions of Earth, it put them in a position to show us all that they’ve still got some pretty extensively surprise-filled sleeves. Having already won over legions of fans with simple but classic three-minute retro-pop songs, all distortion and strum, the band this time canned the effects and unleashed something always hinted at, but never quite delivered before: uncanny musicianship.
Which is precisely where we come in tonight. With all the initial hype long gone, any original hints of artifice washed away by an obvious continued and wholehearted dedication to the music, and the new songs gaining stronger and stronger holds in our tune-addled minds, the Strokes appear onstage as more than just the captivating live presence they’ve always represented - today, they’re undeniable, bona fide superstars; and better yet, they’re among the most talented musicians in this city of millions.
From Nikolai’s menacing bass run on “Juicebox” to Nick’s mesmerizing lead-guitar work on “Heart in a Cage” and Albert’s equally stunning “Vision of Division” solo; and from Fab’s drumming on, hell, just about everything to Julian’s finally fully-unleashed vocals, the five have elevated themselves from mere cultural icons to the kinds of performers that make other musicians strive to be better at their own craft.
In a way, Mr. Casablancas especially has always hidden to a certain degree in the past: whether it was behind a drunken persona or a wash of vocal distortion, there was a distance kept from those who watched his every move. Now, while he may reflect, “Everybody sees me / But it’s not that easy / Standing in the light field,” Casablancas not only steps into the spotlight more freely, but seems to welcome it. His rapport with the audience can’t be described as anything other than gracious, with “thank you’s offered as frequently as melodic screams and croons; and for a live take on First Impressions’ “Ask Me Anything,” he stands almost completely exposed, accompanied only by Nick on piano, as the rest of the band disappears from sight.
It’s ironic that, as he delivers lines like “I’ve got nothing to say,” and “We could drag it out / But that’s for other bands to do,” nothing could be plainer than the fact that the Strokes not only remain as vital today as the day they first appeared, but that they’re still one of the most important bands in the world. While other marquee acts have risen up in their wake, the majority of them will leave behind only a fraction of the legacy; the fact that the Strokes can remain modest, if not flat-out self-deprecatory, in the face of that is just one more reason to celebrate them.
They haven’t forgotten where they came from, either. The set is veritably riddled with the instant classics that peppered their first two albums, from “Hard To Explain” and “The Modern Age” to “Reptilia” and “What Ever Happened,” all sounding better than ever, supplemented by the band’s flashing-light-lined stage set and unbridled exuberance. A newly standard cover of the Ramones’ “Life’s a Gas” stands as a further tribute to the sound of the city that spawned them, while a chaotic “Take It or Leave It” closes things out with a no-holds-barred performance, leaving behind a trashed drum kit, along with the revelation that the older songs now sound even better live than they did on the original albums.
Another five years and the Strokes will be downright ancient by new-band standards. But chances are they’ll still be setting the high-water mark that other groups to strive to reach. Let’s just hope that when they finally do call it a day (not for a few decades’ time, if we’re lucky), there will be someone else to pick up the torch, and our fine city can be spared yet another dark, all-too-quiet age.