Last summer, when I saw TV on the Radio in this same venue, I lavished them with praise, despite a few kinks in their live show. On that night, opening for the zombie version of Mark E. Smith, lead young liar Tunde Adebimpe sang over Kyp Malone’s guitar and beats coming directly from David Sitek’s mouth. The main advantage of having little instrumentation was that Adebimpe’s vocals took the forefront.
26 Mar 2004: The Empty Bottle Chicago
But now TV on the Radio have a debut album (this year’s Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes) under their belt, and damn it, they’re gonna tour like it. So Sitek traded his mic for a guitar, and the band added an honest-to-goodness rock rhythm section, with Gerard Smith on bass and Jaleel Bunton on the drums. Almost every song on both Desperate Youth, Bloodthristy Babes and 2003’s Young Liars EP have been drastically re-worked for a live setting, their metallic clinking ditched in favor of the more familiar whirring of electric guitars.
This decision has two immediate results: first, Tunde Adebimpe’s heart-shattering dop-wop croon has been pushed back a bit and second, the songs are played a lot faster. Under the new treatment, the vaulting postrock aria “Staring at the Sun” became a throbbing dance number, and the rhythmic churner “The Wrong Way” became an a no-holds-barred rock spaz-out. The new full-band worked best on “Young Liars”, a song wisely placed first on the setlist, giving the crowd a spectacular example of what they could expect the rest of the night. While TV on the Radio’s new rockin’ ways are certainly a tradeoff, no one, and I mean no one, could complain on hearing those live drums kick in for the first time.
With only fifteen songs on record, TV on the Radio had no problem ripping through almost all of their catalog (still no “Mr. Grieves” cover in sight. Damn.) with guitars blazin’ and drums poundin’. Not surprisingly, the material from Desperate Youth, written with the full band, fared better in a live setting, especially “Dreams” and “Poppy”, the songs that most resembled their recorded counterparts. On “Poppy”, members of The Panthers, the tight (if standard) Brooklyn act that opened up the show, came on stage to add a few more drums to the song’s finale, which oddly reminded me of the groups of young boys up on Michigan Avenue who beg for change from tourists by pounding on upturned plastic buckets. As on TV on the Radio songs, this was rendered more meaningful by Adebimpe’s vocals. He is quite possibly the only frontman in indie rock who can really sing in the Simon Cowell sense of the word. We’re lucky to have him on our team, folks.
As an encore, Sitek, Malone and Adebimpe came out and performed “Ambulance” by themselves, with Sitek explaining that, “we were here last summer and tried some bullshit. I think I recognize some of you that were here then. Well, ee’re gonna try some bullshit now.” With Sitek laying downing the beats,“Ambulance” actually sounded better than on the album, where it verges on the barbershop. And, hey, there was Adebimpe’s voice, tearing it up without any guitars to hide it. The rest of the band came back on, and they played “Blind”, the song most thoroughly transformed for the live setting. If you’ve ever heard “Blind”, you know that it’s slow, rhythmic, thumping, unrelenting, and the saddest song you’re likely to hear. If it doesn’t kill you when Adebimpe finally belts out, “I would take any, and blindly,” then you’ve got no soul, son. Live, it was the most rockin’ song in the set, if you can believe it. It was fast, loud, and vaguely punk. Yeah, I wouldn’t believe it either, had I not heard it with my own ears.
So TV on the Radio is one of those few bands that justifies my existence my being quite a bit different live than on record. Fortunately for us, though, the difference is mostly one of style, and rarely one of quality.