City: Portland, Oregon Venue: The Hollywood Theatre Date: 2003-01-25
I'm supposed to tell you about Hot Hot Heat. I'm supposed to drop smug, all-knowing categorizations. Like "prog-rock." Or "mod-rock." Or "retro-punk." Or "synth-wave." Maybe I'm supposed to tell you about this band's herky-jerky danceable frenetic strut, or their obsession with the Cure. Maybe I'm supposed to talk about the exhausted "garage rock" movement -- or how you have to understand the Strokes, or Canadians, to understand Hot Hot Heat.
I can't do any of that.
Because a band can't be measured alone by press hype and studio efforts. Make Up the Breakdown is an addictive record. But can I get on board with this band beyond a $17 purchase? I'll tell you this: I can't, in good conscience, recommend this band to you. I can't commit. And neither should you.
If Hot Hot Heat can't get their act together enough to pick appropriate venues and hire competent sound and lighting staff, do they deserve to be on tour charging $10 for tickets? No.
I'm a stodgy and obsessive fan. I expect to be able to hear the vocals. I expect to at least detect the presence of the lead electric guitar in the mix. It's not enough that the band has good haircuts, thin ties, sweet faces. Fashion cannot replace what's missing tonight. This is not music. To quote the ink stamp on the inside of my right wrist, this is not art. This is a mess, a mockery; the bands should refuse to play their sets and give us our money back.
The Hollywood Theater should never again host a rock band. The place is a cavernous sonic disaster. The lighting doesn't provide any illumination. The entire evening in this place feels like a Federal Emergency has just been declared. It's like we're in the middle of a brownout. Light bulbs dimmed. Wires sizzling. Long awkward crowd silences. Al Green's on the PA to attempt to calm our jittery impatient nerves, and when the sound guy messes that up, the mild-mannered crowd gets vocal. You can't take the Reverend away from us -- he's the only sign of redemption we've got on this miserable Saturday night.
If you're a band touring on a substantive label (in Hot Hot Heat's case, Sub Pop), here's some advice. If you're not sure about the venues you've selected and/or the in-house audio staff who'll be supporting you, bring your own gear. Or rent some. Or bring your own sound guy. Or at least do your homework. Spending 30-plus minutes sound checking between bands is inexcusable. Destroying our eardrums with PA feedback before the headliner has even taken the stage is criminal.
And for national acts braving Portland's moody weather and lazy audiences, be forewarned. This is not New York City. Our restaurants stop seating at 10pm. Starting the thirdopening act after midnight (the Walkmen, an intense Brooklyn NY five-piece with former members from Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys) is an insult to our narcoleptic way of life. In January we're in hibernation -- show some respect.
The Walkmen are probably a great band. I can't really say. The vocalist sounds like he's singing Joy Division covers through a really cheap megaphone and a six-inch cement wall. The audience seems to perk up when the band plays "that song from the Saturn commercial," and the lead singer certainly shows a lot of gusto. It's not enough.
We want to understand our new infatuations. Recordings alone don't set a deep and broad context. We want to see our young heroes, flaws and all. What sins do they commit on stage? Are they self-reflective? What do they pick for an encore? Are they bored? Boring?
If you believe the feeding frenzy, Hot Hot Heat is the best thing to come out of Canada in . . . forever. OK, maybe that's not saying much. But I'll take Tegan and Sara over these guys any day. Next time? Play the Blackbird. Smaller venue, great sound system, friendly staff. You and your music will get treated with respect. And, most importantly, your audience will get what they deserve -- intelligible live music in our ears minus that empty feeling in our stomach that tells us, we've just been ripped off.
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