TV On The Radio, Arctic Monkeys, Panda Bear, Warpaint and Smith Westerns
The Hollywood Bowl
September 25, 2011
Better than... any of these acts sound on record.
Not quite a festival, Sunday night's five-act concert at the Hollywood Bowl was the Inception of this year's indie shows -- buzz band opening for buzz band opening for buzz band. And with the lineup a bit of a stylistic potpourri -- from Arctic Monkeys' UK art punk to Warpaint's mellow L.A. dreamin' -- I was curious to see how each band's distinct style would translate at the venue.
For all of its repute, the Bowl can be a hit or miss for rock shows. It's magnificent for orchestrally-inclined bands like Belle and Sebastian and The Decemberists, who have played landmark gigs with the L.A. Phil, but has proved to be a let down for groups like Pavement and Sonic Youth, whose sounds demand the raucous intimacy of a more traditional rock venue. While nearly every band on the lineup last night proved themselves to be better enjoyed live than on record, that was about the only similarity to their sets. Here's our rundown of how the L.A. Phil-curated set closed out the 2011 summer concert season at the Hollywood Bowl:
After playing FYF earlier this month, the Chicago boys' 6 p.m. set was the opening credits to the evening, with the sun still up and much of the audience loitering near the refreshments window. You couldn't help but feel kind of bad for Smith Westerns. But not too bad; if there's any gig for an up-and-coming band to be the little fish in a big pond, this was it. Their hazy, hooky rock was, if nothing else, the perfect soundtrack to settle in with your bottle of wine.
The show marked a celebratory moment for hometown heroes Warpaint, whose set capped an extensive slate of touring. But as bassist-singer Jenny Lee Lindberg quipped in the band's interview with West Coast Sound last week, "It's happening a lot sooner than we expected, but we're also probably playing at 5:30." She wasn't too far off the mark -- the band played a five-song set that began at 6:20 -- but the ladies seemed to be enjoying themselves plenty, their laughter and lighthearted demeanor a nice complement to the moody psychedelia of their music.
In theory, those kind of gauzy, understated tunes are an apt choice for the Bowl's acoustics, but the venue ultimately sounded a bit too big for the band's britches. The mixing was muddled and the sparse crowd that attended the earlier part of the evening added to the feeling of it being background music. That said, if you happened to be seated closer to the stage, the intensity of their performance was downright magnetic -- Warpaint even dared to defy the Bowl Gods and their infamously strict set times by launching into an unplanned fifth song, and kept playing even as the stage rotated away.
Enlisting the help of Sonic Boom's Peter Kember, Noah Lennox a.k.a. Panda Bear tinkered and twisted his way through most of his latest record Tomboy (though I think the crowd might have audibly sighed with relief when he played the liberal arts anthem "Bros" off of 2007's staple Person Pitch). Though Panda Bear's dreamy experimental tunes stylistically overlap with Warpaint, their sets couldnt've handled the venue more differently. Where Warpaint were compelling to watch but frustrating to listen to, Panda Bear's intimate stage setup was awkward, but the music a booming wave of sound.
That's not to knock his video-screen-and-soundboard setup, but the video, clearly a dominant and compelling backdrop at smaller venues, looked ill-fitting and diminuitive on the Bowl's massive stage (unless you were lucky enough to be seated directly in front of it or in the orchestra pool). The video itself, over which Lennox and Kember were silouhetted, was a trippy montage of what looked to be old found film reels--giant lips, sharks, someone jumping, waterslides. Rapidly intercut with psychedelic designs, the whole experience felt kind of like flipping through someone's memories on a microform scanner--not a bad fit for the visceral, sensory dream state that is Panda Bear's music.
And then there was Arctic Monkeys, a gaggle of snarling, strapping Brits who still haven't quite achieved the level of success here that they enjoy across the pond--and that anyone who's ever seen them live will tell you is a damn injustice. It's safe to say that from the moment they sauntered onstage to Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing," the Sheffield quartet stole the show. If you've only heard their big U.S. hit, "I Bet You Look On The Dancefloor," which is vaguely annoying if you're not drunk, you're probably scratching your head. The band has come a long way, evolving from a "suck it society" 'tude on their teenage 2006 debut to this year's lascivious Suck It And See.
That stylistic progression from aggro art punk to sexed-up blues-rock ("They're a little dungeon-y," a friend noted) across their four albums keeps it all the more interesting live, as they proved in last night's extensive but well-curated selection from their discography. Misfit frontman Alex Turner, who looks rather unassuming off-stage, must have a hidden "intensity" switch--he worked the otherwise-seated audience into a upright frenzy with the raise of an eyebrow, singing into the mic like he wanted to punish it. Drummer Matt Helders played with equal command and ferocity, spinning and throwing his sticks with perfected rockstar choreography that compelled an audience member to yell, "Yeah drummer, you make that roadie get you more sticks!"
Of course, it was still "Dancefloor" that got the biggest rise out of the crowd, but maybe their heavy round of U.S. touring this summer got the updated version of the band to stick--if last night's show was any indication, they just might have the States damn well conquered.
TV On The Radio review below.
TV On The Radio
Success-wise, TVOTR was the appropriate choice as the evening's headliner-of-the-headliners, but Arctic Monkeys proved to be an unexpectedly tough act to follow. After the crowd broke a sweat, it was clear they wanted to keep the flow going--and TVOTR's layered, harmony-based songs just aren't necessarily meant to do that. It's not that they didn't try--and that "Wolf Like Me" isn't one of the best dance party tracks of the past decade--but maybe, unlike the earlier acts, they tried a little too hard to fill the Bowl's big sonic shoes. Understated classics like "Satellite" and "Staring at the Sun" were given a double-time kick that did keep people moving, but ultimately flattened the tunes.
Nonetheless, it's hard for any live act to touch frontman Tunde Adebimpe's emotional, sermon-like performances. A single rotating ambulance light on his keyboard stand echoed the urgency of his performance, which was invoked with the kind of visceral fever that's at the heart of TVOTR's sound.
"Has anyone here ever felt overwhelmed by darkness?" he called out, before launching into a crescendo-filled rendition of "Forgotten." The question was a haunting reminder of the tragedy faced by the band just months ago, when bassist Gerard Smith died from lung cancer in April. TVOTR has shown amazing resilience since that loss, continuing to tour behind their new record Nine Types of Light (on which Smith played) with a distinct and unprecedented blend of joy and yearning.
If the five-act bill read like a generic mix of indie heavy hitters, the performances couldn'tve proved that more wrong - each act was more like a new course of an eclectic meal. While there were weaker and stronger points, there's no question it all amounted to an evening of undeniable satisfaction.
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Critical bias: This lineup was more or less the soundtrack to every party at my college between 2008-2010.
Random notebook dump: Sitting crowd again! No! Solidarity to the guys venturing into the aisles to get their dance on.
The Crowd: Anyone who listens to KCRW? The bulk of L.A.'s middle class? Strong showing from members of the L.A. media, some there for work, but many as fans; also lots of local bands in attendance, including members of Airborne Toxic Event (who will be featured in our upcoming music issue Oct. 20) and new Aussie transplants Miami Horror. Singer Sia was also there, as was Julia Stiles. A pack of fans were already gathered by the artist entrance immediately after Arctic Monkeys' set, shouting "Aleeeeeeex!" to no avail. Far cry from when I saw him take a smoke break during Panda Bear's set outside, unbothered save for the waifish model type on his arm (and my not-so-distantly swooning eyes).
Overheard in the crowd: Guy wielding a forty: "Did they play 'Wolf Like Me'? Was I this bathroom when they played 'Wolf Like Me'?!" Other guy: "Yeah dude. You fucked up."