City: Chicago Venue: Empty Bottle Date: 2003-06-28
TV on the Radio
The Wonderful and Frightening World of . . . TV on the Radio
For the Fall's stop at Chicago's Empty Bottle, they drew as an opener Brooklyn newcomers TV on the Radio. On a bill together, these two very different bands, an aging British postpunk act and a group of youngsters from the "New York Scene," both showed just how important vocals can be. Some music freaks care only for the quality of instrumentation (Rush fans, I'm looking in your direction), but, especially live, nothing compares to someone who knows how to handle a mic.
TV on the Radio took the stage announcing that they would soon "envelope" the crowd in "sonic love." What was most surprising at this point was that TV on the Radio, as the opening act, had a crowd to envelope. Despite the fact that they have yet to officially release any recorded material (their debut EP, Young Liars, was not due out until a week later), TV on the Radio have been enjoying some good buzz, especially here in Chicago, since earning the distinction of being the first band to be signed to hometown label Touch and Go Records based solely on the strength of a demo. Touch and Go certainly knew what they were getting into though, since the band's keyboardist/sound manipulator/ guitarist/backup vocalist David Andrew Sitek has produced such hot New York acts as the Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. However, too much premature buzz has often been known to ruin a promising new act (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are an arguable example). But, good God, after seeing TV on the Radio live, I consider it my journalistic duty to help upgrade that "buzz" to "hype."
The Empty Bottle billed this show as TV on the Radio's "debut performance" after signing with Touch and Go, and, to be sure, the band is still working out some kinks. More than once, speakers crackled and mics screeched, causing the band members to wince. Furthermore, their music relies little on live instrumentation. The two guitars on stage were largely ornamental. What TV on the Radio rely on are Tunde Adebimpe's amazing vocals, a mixture of indie grit and smooth soul stylings unlike anything else on the scene. His vocals are backed by bandmates Kyp Malone and Sitek, who alternately add chants, human beatboxes, and falsettos. The band went through all of the songs from their EP (minus the "hidden" track, a cover of the Pixies' "Mr. Grieves"), and a few presumably new songs. Among the highlights were the quiet, rhythmic, almost entirely vocal "Blind", and the swaying, building "Staring at the Sun". "Staring at the Sun" received the most favorable response from the packed bar, perhaps since many of the people there had already downloaded it from Touch and Go's website (hint hint).
TV on the Radio is set apart by its unique vocals, and The Fall are much the same. In fact, The Fall are so much defined by Mark E. Smith's snide British bark that he has been able to convince people that, after replacing everyone else in the band innumerable times, the act on the stage is still The Fall.
Surprisingly, though, Smith's backing band was the best part of the show. This fact is probably due both to a healthy fear of being fired, and the joy of getting to play with a legendary band. The guitarist, Ben Pritchard, who looks like he was probably in diapers when Grotesque came out, seemed to enjoy himself the most, especially before and after MES was on stage, when he could have the limelight. The drummer and bassist, too, flew through all stages of The Fall's catalog with ease, fun, and energy. Mrs. Mark E. Smith #100 (Eleanor) "played" the keyboards and contributed some nice, angry vocals. She has an eerie presence, and I couldn't tell if she was uncomfortable on stage or just trying too hard to look cool. Perhaps she was just uneasily trying to remember the age of consent in Illinois.
This, of course, brings us to Mark E. Smith, the man who really makes up The Fall. I'm sad to say that, at least during this show, his classic, inimitable sarcastic snarl has devolved into a slur. You can be kind and chalk it up to fatigue (during the show, MES said, still in rhythm from "Telephone Thing", "I can highly rec-ohm-end / that twenty-five hoow-ur / drive to Chi-cog-oh"), or you can be cynical and chalk it up to age, but Smith just couldn't keep up the arrogant, fast-talking, razor-sharp, dripping-with-sarcasm delivery that has made his voice so distinctive. In the opener, "Behind the Counter", he sounded half-asleep as he drolled out "Wait, sir / wait, sir, / you'd better wait, sir" over and over (and over) again.
There were times, however, when MES seemed to wake up, notably as he straightened up and proclaimed, "I am Damo Suzuki", and again as he spat at the Chicago crowd that he was "Trapped in bourgeois town" on his semi-cover of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues". Another highlight was "The Last Commands of Xyralothep via MES", in which Smith dramatically shook his fist as he channeled the god "Xyralothep."
With their main asset lagging, what was most immediately striking is how songs from across The Fall's long career blended together in mush. Thus the encore of the crowd-pleasing "Dr. Buck's Letter", "Mr. Pharmacist", and the new material (from the forthcoming Country on the Click, delayed by, you guessed it, lineup changes) all sounded like vocal mush, whereas the previously mentioned highlights all sounded like The Fall in their prime.
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