View more photos in Timothy Norris' “Julian Casablancas at Palace Theater” slideshow.
Downtown L.A.'s Palace Theater may be best known for its role in Michael Jackson's “Thriller.” In a memorable scene, Jackson exits the theater and tries to convince his frightened lady-friend that the scary creatures, loud sounds and haunting music were just a spectacle. “It's only a movie,” he says. On Friday night, another shaggy haired, leather jacket-wearing singer paid a visit to the Palace: Julian Casablancas. The Strokes singer kicked off a series of Friday gigs at the Palace, following the release of his solo album, Phrazes for the Young. But like Jackson's critique of Thriller's mini-movie, Casablancas' Palace performance, though big budget and flashy, was mostly spectacle.
Eight years have passed since the Strokes presented “Is This It” and their stripped down sound that ushered in what music journos at the turn of the millennium called a “return of rock.” In the delightfully dilapidated hall of the formerly ornate Palace Theater, Casablancas presented the streamlined and off-kilter dance pop from Phrazes, a dancey derivation but not a departure from the Stokes oeuvre.
Displaying the usual detachedness that Casablancas showcased with the Strokes, the singer held the mic stand tightly, while video projections and huge banners of LA cityscapes alongside Brooklyn brownstones scrolled in the background. He closed his eyes and ran through the frenetic electro stomp, “River of Brakelights” and the organ drenched, 1980's A-Ha-rocker, “11th Dimension.” Casablancas solo sound is a solid, highly danceable (Breakfast Club style) mashup of The Horrors, the Faint, and well, the Strokes.
The audience, comprised of more than a few Strokes look-a-likes in Members-Only Jackets and Air Force Ones, watched with patient fascination, perhaps hearing these Casablancas songs for the first time. Others patiently waited for a Strokes song to waft from Casablancas' general direction. This suspicion was not unfounded, earlier in the evening two Strokes, Albert Hammond, Jr. and Fabrizio Moretti were spotted upstairs surrounded by squeeling girls and iPhones uploading aren't-you-jealous tweets. The gentlemen never graced the stage, but later Casablancas let out one Strokes rarity, “I'll Try Anything Once.”
To Casablancas' credit, the show looked great on a chocolate-bar sized screen. And perhaps even sounded great after it was compressed, emailed, and uploaded to a torrent site. But live, Casablancas seems to be anything but. Even Thriller's zombies showed more energy, and they were dead.
Ennui is Casablancas' schtick, but he kept the I-don't-want-to-be-here vibe alive for most of the set, holding the mic stand and looking blankly ahead; a move more home in living room Rockband sessions than a historic theater.
A frontperson is a musician most closely related to audience members. Not every one can deft wield an axe or pound the drums, but every person can sing, be it in their car, shower, or in an amphitheater. It is easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of the frontperson, staring out from the stage and soaking in the love. This ubiquity places a unique responsibility upon a frontman (or woman), who takes the role of intermediary, translating music into language, and energy into movement. See also: James Brown, Ian Curtis, or Annabella Lwin. With all eyes on them, the frontperson channels the excitement of the crowd, and dishes it back ten fold.
But Casablancas' statuesque pose holding the mic for dear life was anything but exciting, and certainly not frontman material.
And he probably knows this.
The banners and the videos were well-thought out distractions from his stage paralysis. After an intermission (which lasted almost as long as the first set) the band returned to the stage outfitted in white suits, possibly borrowed from Carnival Cruiselines. Casablancas' eight-piece band tore through bizarre and innovative guitar solos and complex drum patterns (with two drummers), while he stood there in the same pose only in new clothes. Then when it looked like he was finally going to move, the house lights went down and the white suits lit up. Christmas trees get a similar treatment, and they have more stage presence than Casablancas.
Maybe he was just nervous, “this is only our fourth show,” he revealed halfway through the set, and he seemed to be taking notes on how to improve the show. “Well, I guess we won't do that next show,” Casablancas said after receiving slight boos for mentioning the absence of an encore.
Casablancas' rigidity was a disservice to his own songs, which were energetic, fast-tempo dance rockers lifted up by his melodic vocals. But as a front man, Casablancas, for now, falls a little flat.