City: New York Venue: Irving Plaza Date: 2002-02-06
What Comes After Britpop? Or, the Stereophonics Take Your American Hype and Shove It
While much of his fellow UK fraternity are busy trying to be Chris Martin of Coldplay, Kelly Jones, frontman of Welsh band the Stereophonics, simply wants to be. He said as much with the laissez-faire swagger that carried him onto the stage during the second to last show of their recent US tour; the denim jacket and jeans he donned were more truckstop and Sunday afternoon than high-energy New York City show-wear. Oh, and then there were the shades: shielding his eyes from the crowd, or perhaps shielding the crowd from his eyes, the dual function that sunglasses can assume on hungover mornings or at funerals.
I can't be sure about hangovers, but the concert was a funeral, of sorts. Britpop has been officially dead since the mid-1990s, pushed to ridiculous excess with Blur's 1995 The Great Escape, and forcefully whooped by Oasis's What's the Story Morning Glory of the same year. And ever since, rock music in the UK has been searching -- fruitlessly -- for an identity, a savior, or maybe just a bodyguard. These days, the gimmick seems to be fully without gimmick -- to be naked emotion, pearled with the softness of soul-searching self-reflection. Even in its earnestness, though, the marketability of this schtick may slowly be burning out; after all, how many noveau-folk lovesick British lads can the public take?
And then, there are the Stereophonics, who that night, as always, fell in the minute category of bands who seem wholly unaware that there even is a gimmick to be adopted. And in this climate, that's a refreshing stance. This isn't to say that they're without die-hard followers or critics willing to write the history of their albums as The Answer; this simply means that, since their first release in 1997, the Stereophonics have been less pretty-boy prima donnas than proletarian workhorses. With an unpretentious, unflinching style, the Stereophonics music is replete with rootsy truisms, and wholly void of the trickery of trends. This brutal honest may give them niche appeal in the States (after all, we like our Brits to be novel), but it gives them a cache that is rare on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Stereophonics were preceded by JJ72, an Irish band of early twentysomethings who seem a maudlin hybrid of Echo and the Bunnymen, early Suede, and New Order. Or, in other words, they will wail and you will like it. However, this evening's angst-fest was lead singer Mark Greaney alone, since a family emergency of bassist Hilary Woods prevented the full threesome from performing. Greaney played a brief, but intense, acoustic set. Opening the night with dramatic version of "Snow", from their 2000 eponymous debut, Greaney poured on the sorrow, stitching every word with reflective agony. His body shimmied and he nodded his head back and forth as he artfully crescendoed and decrescendoed, coating every line with a thick vibrato. On "October Swimmer", a song that on the album comes off with a Cure-ish manic depression, the mania was completely gone. As Greaney sang "I want to be a happy boy," the audience was left wondering how such a sweet-faced boy could be so terribly sad.
When the Stereophonics entered the stage, they were both more peaceful and more powerful than the set that had just come before. It was as if a younger brother had just thrown a screaming tantrum; now, big brothers were coming to calmly kick ass. The stage was awash with big lights, big presence (there were five on stage, though the band is a trio) and a big Stereophonics logo as a backdrop. They also -- immediately, forcefully -- packed their performances with enough hormones to turn Greaney's banshee singing into the cool, low crooning of Barry White. An easy explanation for this again, goes back to Kelly Jones, who is both laid-back and forcefully sexual in the same, confident sweep.
They opened the night with a pulsing rendition of "Mr. Writer", from their 2001 release Just Enough Education to Perform. The song is a slow-cooked masterpiece, fleshed with meaty guitar licks that fall off the bone of soulful drumming and bass. Jones' vocals, added in, complete the smoky stew; heard live, this song moves and shakes, rousing the concert hall to full on, throbbing mammojammer. They rammed hard into the verses and choruses, Jones stomping the beat into the floor as he strummed, with bassist Richard Jones off to the right, following suit. The number closed with a standard rock and roll drop-kick jam, Jones singing suddenly high and crazy, stretching over notes, as the frenzy that backed him faded into a hazy hum.
The Stereophonics later dove into a rabble-rousing version of "A Thousand Trees", a favorite from their 1997 album Word Gets Around. This number electrified new fans as well as old, as the Stereophonics dealt a clever hand of exacting, palpable guitar lines and anthem-worthy lyrics. And while we're on anthems -- halfway through their set, the band pulled out two trump cards: "I Wouldn't Believe Your Radio" and "Have a Nice Day", which were tarted up with tempo changes (Radio) and eye-popping silences (Nice Day).
There were few words exchanged; mostly matter-of-fact introductions and mumbled thanks yous for the appreciation. Again, such taciturnity seemed appropriate for a band that simply does what they know how to do, no frills. (The longest intro came before Just Enough Education to Perform's "Step in My Old Size Nines", which Jones straightforwardly described as "a song about an old man who asks an old woman to dance, and she says no, my feet hurt, and he says, 'step in my old size nines.") And their fans responded by behaving almost as if they were witness to a work of art: politely clapping, quietly singing, and experiencing the import of the moment respectfully, together. Even on favorites, like honky-tonk "Nice to Be Out" or soaring "Just Looking" the crowd was never crass; they were like they obviously in it for the long haul, without the flightiness of those drawn in just for singles.
The Stereophonics come off as almost immune to the hype machine; they've had plenty of it, but it's left them virtually unscathed. Their mission isn't to rule the world, or get overplayed on MTV, or even to write a prescription for British music. Simply put, the Stereophonics want to play a good show for their dedicated fanbase -- and maybe that attitude is just the remedy that British rock needs.
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