America’s two most-slobbered-over-by-the-British-music-press rock locales met once again last Thursday when New York garage rockers the Yeahs Yeah Yeahs made their first appearance in Detroit as part of a mini co-headlining tour with city mates the Liars. The Yeah Yeahs Yeahs had been advertised as the main event here, but instead they played in the penultimate position of a four-band bill, leaving the too-late-for-a-school-night headlining slot to the Liars. This ultimately proved to be a smart move for the band, because it left the audience wanting more when their set ended a little before midnight, rather than heading early for the exits, worn out from too many hours of two-and-a-half-minute garage rock number upon two-and-a-half-minute garage rock number.
Most reviews of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs zone in on frontwoman Karen O and her wild on-record/onstage antics, and, based on this night’s performance, it’s easy to see why. With guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase already in position playing the stop-start riff to “Shake It” to open the set, Karen O delayed her entrance another minute, then arrived onstage in fits and starts, conjuring up visions of some sort of art school version of “Here Comes the Bride”. From then on, the audience’s focus was almost exclusively on her—what she was wearing (tight jeans and an nude color open-backed top with a black bra underneath that required constant adjustment), what she was drinking (a Corona, which she guzzled feverishly between songs), what her hair looked like (Chrissie Hynde with a mullet), and what she was doing (generally blowing everyone away). Heck, I thought the guys behind me exclaiming ad nauseum about how hot she was were going to explode from the sexual excitement.
They were right to be excited. Karen O’s audacious herky-jerky movements and breathless half-purring, half-screeching vocals, backed perfectly by the dirty thrash of her bandmates’ guitar and drum assault, at times made for one of the most exciting live shows I’ve witnessed in awhile. That she maintained a broad smile rather than a sneer while intoning cutting lyrics like “As a fuck, son, you suck”—apparently O never got the memo that rock stars don’t smile—made her enthusiasm all the more infectious. The audience obviously came prepared for a spectacle. More people had cameras on them than I’ve ever seen at a club show, and the flash bulbs were a constant accompaniment throughout the performance. Not to be out-objectified, Zinner also came prepared, pulling out a camera of his own at one point and taking snaps of the audience right back.
The band performed nearly all of their recorded output (admittedly not that difficult a task when said output is composed of an EP, a three-song single and a few compilation tracks), along with a number of songs that will appear on their forthcoming album (label and release date as yet undetermined). The first half of the set, incredibly tight and nearly stage banter-free, flew by at a breakneck pace. It was only when things slowed down midway through so that the increasingly winded O could catch her breath that a few chinks in the armor could be detected.
One intriguing aspect of the show was the total disconnect between Karen O’s performing personality and her between-songs behavior. During the songs she was pure rock goddess, strutting and preening like the bastard love child of Mick Jagger and Debbie Harry. But between songs, especially later in the set, when forced to buy time and air by manufacturing crowd banter, she sounded girly and nervous, more Polly Pushypins than Polly Jean Harvey. It was endearing, but weirdly disappointing too, to catch glimpses of the unsure-of-herself woman behind the sex kitten curtain. Usually you’d have to wait much longer than 25 minutes to catch such a consummate performer without her face on.
Also interesting was just how directly the show’s excitement was tied to how close you were to the stage. When I slipped away from the front rows for a few numbers to see how the Yeahs’ act played at the back of the house, the effect was very different. Without the visceral experience that close proximity to the band provided, the vocal histrionics and eardrum-puncturing musical accompaniment came off more often as noise and artifice rather than exhilaration. So though they’re poised to be The Next Big Thing, it may well be better for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to stay relatively small a little while longer. At least right now, they seem to be best in an intimate setting, where bodies are wedged together, the three-piece band’s sound is capable of overpowering the room’s dimensions, and every audience member can stand close enough to be pelted with drops of Karen O’s sweat.
The show closed with the anthemic “Our Time” and an awkward attempt to enlist audience members to take over on the lyrics, arena-rock style. Unfortunately, the folks into whose faces Karen O shoved the microphone didn’t actually know the words (though not before they gave it a painfully labored try). Maybe it was just as well that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs got this reminder that they haven’t quite reached audience singalong status yet, at least not in these parts where we’ve got our own British-press-proclaimed Next Big Things to obsess over. But it seems only a matter of time before they will, and here’s hoping that when that time comes they’re ready for it.