Reviews

MGMT: 18 June 2010 - Chicago

Kirstie Shanley
Photos: Kirstie Shanley

Selling out Chicago's Riviera Theater in what seemed like a heartbeat is no small feat during a recession, but MGMT pulled it off easily.

MGMT

MGMT

City: Chicago
Venue: Riviera Theater
Date: 2010-06-18

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Selling out the Riviera Theater in what seemed like a heartbeat is no small feat during the age of a recession but MGMT pulled it off easily. Despite the large tornado-like storm sweeping through the city and causing escalading property damage and tree carnage, fans were outside lining up as early as four hours before the band went on. Braving the weather, these devotees were part of an early scene of people who knew the words to all of MGMT’s songs by heart and couldn’t wait to sing along. They also were taking part in a certain indie hipster scene and reveling in that moment.

After putting out two full-length releases of anthemic party hits, MGMT has decided to recently do something a little more adventurous. With 2010’s Congratulations, they’ve created a psychedelic pop paradise. It has catchy hooks but the songs are longer and require an earnest listening with added bridges to make them each their own epic opus. It’s transcendent stuff and unlike anything else currently on the music scene. At the same time, there’s a definite nod to many glam and psychedelic bands, the most obvious one being Brian Eno, of course.

Touring on this album may have proved tricky, but MGMT adeptly layered the setlist with songs from the new album with the party hits of days past. This kept the crowd happy and dancing, satisfied to hear their favorites while being increasingly open to new musical horizons. It was clear from the dancing, clapping, and sheer amount of people huddled at the foot of the stage to hear the band play that their affections remained steadfast.

To be clear, Congratulations is a masterpiece. “Song for Dan Treacy” appeared early on with it’s quirky pop appeal sandwiched between “Pieces of What” and “Electric Feel”. MGMT followed this song up with an almost jarringly heroic rendition of “Of Moons, Birds, & Monsters” with sprawlingly loud guitar effects to keep it interesting.

Soon after, the band was back with “Flash Delirium”; perhaps their most catchy single off the new album. The video alone for this song is a journey into a land of hazard with regal parties and snakes. Like the song, it’s not exactly clear how the band’s chords move from point A to point B as if a logical progression doesn’t quite exist. This only strengthens the song’s energy, however, as if by magic one is transported to new exciting realms of music. It’s something you have to listen to in order to truly appreciate but clearly its idiosyncrasy is an asset.

Before an awestruck audience, “It’s Working” demonstrated an equal sense of ability in terms of songwriting with a keen sense of emotional questioning within the lyrics and a metaphoric honesty. The song traveled to new heights live with the bandmates joining lead singer Andrew VanWyngarden while singing emphatically the crescendo lyrics: “It's working in your blood which you know is not the same as love. Love is only in your mind and not your heart.”

“Weekend Wars”, a previous single familiar to many and classic crowd favorite was next with a much more emphasized reeling guitar. “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” were received with loud satisfaction as well later on in the set. “The Handshake” showed a return to an intensity seen previously in the set with “Of Moons, Birds & Monsters”. However, nothing should diminish the sense of beauty of other new tracks like the wistful “I Found a Whistle” or the hilariously entertaining “Brian Eno”.

Perhaps the pinnacle of the set was surprisingly “Siberian Breaks”. The vocals and instrumentation live emphasized the best bridges and progressions of the songs. It created an effect that felt like drifting off to sleep in the middle of the best afternoon of your life with molecules slowly and magically dissolving all around you. The length of the song works to its advantage here with the effect that one can actually hold onto all of the magic moments that are woven into a fabric of one lifetime.

In terms of stage presence, the main pair took the front of the stage with VanWyngarden singing and playing his guitar stage center and Ben Goldwasser stage right playing keyboards and providing some lush backing vocals. The band was supported with three additional bandmates playing drums, keyboard, bass, and other percussion. There was a definite tightness to the way the band played with all of the instruments, making the songs as solid and triumphant as they are on album.

The 90 minute set also had a sense of flow overall with few interruptions for banter. VanWyngarden appeared modest and humble, asking the crowd if people were having fun and if they liked the new songs. He even thanked his fans for applauding loudly enough for an encore even though the band was deserving of all of their accolades, including a group of several members chanting the band’s name “M-G-M-T” from the balcony mid set.

Though the band did not fill space between songs with banter, their occupancy on stage was heightened visually by cinematic projections that filled the space behind them. Visuals varied and tended to fit the song with shapes and abstract lines at some points, waiting crowds at others, and famous photos of Brian Eno during his dedication song. The projections helped to engage all senses and make seeing MGMT a more complete experience.

One could not deny by the end of the night the sense of maturity in a band that started out five years ago with straight forward hits and have ventured forth into new musical territories both fulfilling and strange. To see it all wrapped up across the history of the band’s music into one setlist was something enchanting to witness. Even further, to be able to hear the new songs that all contain a rich appealing madness brought to a live fruition made for an immensely spectacular night of music.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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