[20 September 2004]
For years I’ve been defending myself against accusations that I only like things because they’re obscure or indie or just plain unknown. I’ll admit that after repeated steadfast denials I had started to believe my accusers. Even a few months ago, there was a large gulf between my personal taste and what one might call mainstream. Hoobastank, Incubus, and Simple Plan were the rock bands others sought to emulate and whose CDs were being snapped up in droves. Were these bands really as bad I thought or was I just being an elitist prick and dismissing this stuff because everyone else liked it?
The thing was I enjoyed hearing music from new bands and sought it out—it wasn’t like I was some Gen Xer reliving his youth through Police records. Nonetheless, the music I gravitated to seemed increasingly marginalized and irrelevant, and yet outsider-dom was never something I had coveted. All I asked for was some cleverness or glint of intellect in my rock n’ roll, something to make me smile, think, anything. But for nearly a decade, the mainstream had adhered to lobotomized formula. How else to explain the incessant grinding, post-grunge chug on modern rock radio dials or lyrics that rarely featured any thought more profound than, “this life is more than just a read through?”
But leave it to my 13-year-old sister to restore my faith in the mainstream. The last three months have been a watershed, as she has morphed from a Avril Lavigne and New Found Glory mall-punk listener to a bonafide Pixies fan. Now she names bands like Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, and the Killers among her favorite groups.
Atlanta’s 99x, which along with every other modern rock station specialized in Neanderthal rock circa 2000, now finds itself catering to the new generation, seeking to capitalize on the same buyers that catapulted N’Sync to double-platinum status in a single week (i.e. my sister’s demo, who now count themselves among the country’s modern rock fans). So it was no surprise that Sunday night’s headliners for the “Upstart Fest,” designed to showcase the best rock bands in rotation, were none other than the aforementioned Franz Ferdinand and The Killers. As expected, throngs of young teenage girls were huddled at the foot of the stage. And their male tagalongs weren’t far behind, hoisting each other up to crowd surf. However, what the station probably hadn’t banked on was how many people these bands would draw outside of their target demo. People like myself and my fellow 20-somethings who had seceded from commercial radio years ago found ourselves mixing it up with the virgin concert-goers, attempting to pass sweat-drenched limbs overhead without spilling our beers.
But that’s a few hours later. First up were Delays at a very un-rock n’ roll 3:35 start time. In the still, late-summer heat, the Britain-based band tried their best to lure the early birds away from the shade of the signing tent and the beverage stands. They partially succeeded if mostly due to sequencer/programmer Aaron Gilbert’s shimmying and quasi-dancing. Greg Gilbert (no relation) also did his part, elevating his considerably dramatic vocals to Yorke-like peaks. Oddly, the songs that received the most rapt attention were unreleased—both heavily relied on pre-programmed drum beats and, rather surprisingly, markedly deemphasized the singer’s androgynous vocals, which, so far, has been essential to the Delays’ identity. However, based on the reception two of the new tracks, the Delays would do well to embrace the new upbeat direction and move away from the ‘80s-inspired dream-pop they have mined thus far. Perhaps no moment underscored the rapid need for change better than their closer, “Long Time Coming”. Instead of concluding on a triumphant high, the Delays dispatched their current radio single with dry professionalism. Part of the problem was the inherent limitation of performing a song live that so obviously relies on studio treatments for effect. But the flatness also perhaps spoke to the band’s own dissatisfaction with their derivative sound—especially when they’re clearly capable of so much more.
The Whigs ambled onstage approximately half an hour later to a mostly disengaged crowd. Their work was cut out for them. Aside from a few tightly clustered rows at the front, the rest of the audience was still suffering from post-Delays malaise. Most probably were unaware that The Whigs are not only local, but are one of the finest indie rock bands to emerge from the Southeastern U.S. in, well, a long time. Hailing from Athens, The Whigs clearly owe a debt to the college town’s proud tradition of jangly southern rock—pioneered by R.E.M. However, the three-piece emphatically stake out their own claim, incorporating the ramshackle punk of Superchunk and the idiosyncratic simplicity of Pavement. Most importantly, it’s all held together by one of the strongest and most powerful rhythm sections south of the Mason Dixon.
Sadly, while this may have been one of The Whigs biggest shows to date, it was far from their finest performance. The Whigs looked lost within the generic confines of a radio rock show. Gone were Hank Sullivant’s bone-rattling bass lines and Julian Dorio’s Herculean drumming. As was the case for most rock bands that graced the stage on this day, the guitar was front and center in the mix, which is unfortunate because Parker Gispert’s guitar playing, while solid, is probably the band’s least interesting quality. Nonetheless, the Whigs’ hallmarks were still mostly present even if the venue didn’t do them justice: Gispert’s hoarse howl and lunging guitar stance, Sullivant’s head-bop in time to the bass, and Dorio’s pathological adherence to the beat. And the searing guitar solo from Sullivant on “Half the World Away” (Gispert opts to play the piano on the song) was still a treat—in all its Mascis-like glory. With the concluding trifecta of “Violet Furs”, “Written Invitation”, and “Need You Need You”, the band’s manifold gifts shone through whatever technical shortcomings and venue issues may have hampered them. With any luck, the performance enticed a few of those previously unfamiliar with the Whigs to check out one of their many club shows in Atlanta or Athens. 99x may not have done any favors for The Whigs, but when the talent is this obvious, favors aren’t really necessary.
The Scissor Sisters’ set began inauspiciously. Out came five guys in various states of fruity attire—from the guitarist entirely in pink who was referred to simply as “Bear” to singer Jake Shears who preferred skintight leather pants and a pink fur vest. They screamed “gimmick” from the get-go. Their first two songs didn’t improve matters and were greeted with earplugs. However, by about the fourth song, the Sisters had begun to pick things up. The band shifted gears from Elton John karaoke to clever party anthems—one about gay prostitutes peddling their wares on street corners was especially well-received. But to be perfectly honest, the Sisters’ music paled in comparison to the stage banter from Shears, who at one point urged the audience to try some of his homemade ice cream (there was an ice cream stand at one end of the field by the name of Jake’s, albeit not owned by him). “Everyone should try some of that rich, creamy stuff.” Of course, Shears might as well have been talking about his own band’s music. The Sisters’ songs were fun, but so mired in shtick that it was difficult to call them anything but an amusing distraction.
There isn’t much I can say about The Killers that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. Yes, they sounded as you might expect—new wave in neon lights and sparkling chrome. It was strange seeing them in this setting, with so many young girls chanting along to Brandon Flowers’ paeans to decadence. The irony of Flowers’ delivery, which had been on full display last time the band cruised through Atlanta (when they played to approximately 15 people), seemed mostly lost on these concert-goers. By the time the chorus to “On Top” had kicked in, any tongue-in-cheek homage to Duran Duran had melted away, to be replaced by, well, a sincere homage to Duran Duran. Still, it’s hard to find fault with The Killers—even they seem a bit stunned by their own rapid success. Obviously, no one bothered to tell them bands don’t whip out B-sides for a radio audience (“Coming Out”), as a general rule of thumb. The Killers, thankfully, are still in that awkward pubescent stage: big enough to headline an event like this one but completely clueless about how to pull it off convincingly.
Franz Ferdinand, on the other hand, looked like they had been born to headline festivals, even if, like The Killers, they’re technically touring in support of their debut album. Alex Kapranos, with his wide grin and head-cock, has clearly spent a good deal of time perfecting his Paul McCartney mannerisms. Second guitarist Nick McCarthy struts his dance moves with guitar in hand, hips swiveling to Franz’s jagged, kinetic post-punk. Throughout the 75-minute set, the two guitarists exchanged matador poses, legs at 90 degree angles, guitar heads spraying mock gunfire at the audience. One might accuse Franz Ferdinand of being too self-conscious in their pursuit of fun. (Exhibit A: typical pleas for the audience to dance.) But only true killjoy could have begrudged McCarthy his scissor kicks and Kapranos his frequent song dedications to Scotland, or the “greatest dancer in the world” (“Michael”). At the conclusion, the four gathered on the drum riser as if mimicking a Kinks album cover shot and then clasped hands for a bow in unison. The crowd—drenched, bruised, and sated—responded with enthusiastic adulation.
Elitism be damned. Welcome to the new mainstream.