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Friendly Fires + The Phenomenal Handclap Band: 12 August 2009 - New York

Singer Ed Macfarlane works the crowd at NYC's Le Poisson Rouge

12 August 2009 - Le Poisson Rouge, New York / Word and Pictures by Thomas Hauner

How long does it take to set up a bunch of drums, some keyboards and two amps? Apparently, at least an hour. The wait between opener, the Phenomenal Handclap Band, and headliner, Friendly Fires, was spectacularly long (longer than either’s actual set) but fans were rewarded with two stellar, albeit stylistically different, sets.

Though scruffy and spaced out like a hippy commune, deadpan spoken-word lyrics and ethereal yet funky disco beats were the essence of the Phenomenal Handclap Band’s dance-inducing mix of Italo disco and Sly Stone. In other words, Donna Summers would have been an amazing addition to their eight-piece lineup. Ending with “I Been Born Again” left me with a pleasant “Aquarius”-like after-taste. When Friendly Fires finally took the stage they were noticeably anxious from the delay but sliced the tension with the first beats of “Lovesick.” Derived from a decisively Prince meets manic polyrhythm sound, the group’s songs were both a dizzying flurry of percussion and an electric blend of guitars and programmed samples, like on “White Diamonds.” Three songs in, lead singer Ed MacFarlane was already soaked in sweat. A boyishly charismatic front man his energy and earnest Carlton dance are the fulcrum of any Friendly Fires’ show. The onerous set change only seemed to cement his vigor. His strong-enough vocals carried the sparsely arranged but densely rhythmic songs. That combination lent the group a compelling intimacy that rarely comes across on such aggressively metered songs. With the addition of a horn section carrying the main theme of “In The Hospital,” it became a dynamic cry balanced by strident guitars, sampled flutes and layers of vocals. Their presence similarly enhanced their best song, “On Board,” which digressed into an electronic paced jam with crunchy guitar licks over a throbbing bass. Ending with “Ex Lover” didn’t produce the desired acme of an encore, but was still delivered with equal panache.

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