December to Remember

TV on the Radio, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

Over the course of more than a decade and five albums into their career, there is still no band like TV on the Radio.  They are sui generis, a singular entity that defies easy characterization but continually produces gorgeous and engaging music. As great as their studio output is, it gives but a glimpse of the true power of the band, and that’s its live show.  Last Thursday’s show at the Crystal Ballroom was a thrilling experience that capped off not only a wonderful year of concerts, but proves that more than ever we need to be thankful for the band’s existence.

Inside, they don't take as much care in lining up the names for the concert calendar

Inside, they don’t take as much care in lining up the names for the concert calendar

On record, TV on the Radio exerts an air of precision and carefulness; even when the songs are filled with hisses and layers of ambient haze, there is still the notion that this “noise” is meticulously constructed, with the particular vocal styles of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone also contributing to this perception.  However, their live show moves away from their more artfully produced side and instead brings out their dormant punk rock tendencies.  This was established in a dramatic fashion at the very beginning of the show, as waves of haze and noise filled the air like an aural fog machine before Tunde ripped through and delivered a thrilling rendition of one of their earliest songs, “Young Liars”.  Though I have my doubts that most of the audience had an previous familiarity with the song, by the end of the first chorus it didn’t matter, and they provided an enthusiastic response.

Tunde was moving around the stage and wringing the emotion out of every note, often with the aid of his unique physical mannerisms that in the hands of a less capable performer would look ridiculous but were clearly genuine expressions on his part.  Dave Sitek spent most of the set furiously strumming his guitar, and though it was nearly impossible to pick out his singular contributions it was clear that he was making an important contribution to the general atmosphere of each song; he stood in direct contrast to Kyp Malone on the other side of the stage, whose stillness amid the chaos portrayed an almost zen-like quality to his guitar-playing and vocal parts.  In their live performance, the brilliance of the composition of the bass and drum parts become much more apparent, and Jaleel Bunton and Japhet Landis helped not only to keep everything grounded but offered thrilling personal touches of their own.  While Landis seemed to struggle slightly with a couple of the turnarounds in “Lazerray”, he more than made up for it with his handling of the tricky rhythms of “Province”.

TV on the Radio performing "Golden Age"

TV on the Radio performing “Golden Age”

The set focused mainly on the new album Seeds, with the band performing most of the album, including a stretch of four songs in a row that indicate the band’s confidence in the material.  Considering we here at RIJR think it’s one of the top albums of the year, we were fine with this decision.  The band sprinkled only a little bit from the rest of their catalog throughout, with Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain getting a handful of songs each.  For the most part, the intention was to keep the energy up, and so fast-paced rockers like “Dancing Choose” and “Golden Age” dominated the setlist in favor of the band’s slower songs (though a re-working of “Blues From Down Here” showed the versatility of their more balladesque material).  As expected, “Wolf Like Me” was a thrilling highlight, with the crowd absolutely losing its mind during the band’s ferocious performance.

The band seemed to genuinely enjoy their visit to Portland, and the crowd was glad to benefit from the extra shot of energy that comes with the final stop at the end of a tour.  But there were other things that were understandably on the band’s mind, as Kyp and Tunde both took time between songs to express frustration with the recent current events and promote positive social awareness in the audience.  This included a memorable segment that involved crowd participation about “light” and “dark” and Tunde running through and high-fiving the audience.  All of this led up to the final song, the moment that I had been hoping all night to hear once again, and that was their electric performance of their early hit “Staring at the Sun”.  It is one of the highlights of desperate youth, blood thirsty babes, but it takes on a whole new dimension when performed live that few bands in history can match.  It was a sensational conclusion to not only a brilliant show, but to the year in general.  Thanks to that performance, I’m going to have to reshuffle my list of top concerts of the year, but that’s a great problem to have.

The War On Drugs, Live at the Crystal Ballroom

It’s only been a few short months since we last saw The War On Drugs live in Portland, and the upgrade in venue from the Wonder to the Crystal matches their surging popularity over the course of this year.  When we last saw them, the band had just released their latest album Lost In The Dream to stellar reviews and they seemed poised to break through into the mainstream; eight months later, as Lost starts appearing at the top of everyone’s lists for album of the year and the band has a bona fide radio hit with “Red Eyes” (which by kicking off KNRK’s “December to Remember” series of concerts last night confirmed), it’s clear that The War On Drugs have arrived.  And just as they did back in the spring, the band came through with a spirited set that left an even larger audience buzzing.

Thanks to the bizarre layout mandated by the OLCC, a solid dead-center shot for this pic.

Thanks to the bizarre layout mandated by the OLCC, a solid dead-center shot for this pic.

After months of touring, the band’s setlist is a well-oiled machine: a strong natural flow has developed between the ballads and uptempo material, and the transitions between songs have now been smoothed over to minimize the delay for tuning and pedal adjustments.  As to be expected, material from Lost In The Dream dominated the setlist, with eight of the ten tracks represented (only the instrumental “The Haunting Idle” and the dirge-like “Suffering” failed to make the cut).  The peppy “Burning” made for a strong opener and set the mood, but it took the opening clicks of “Under the Pressure” for the crowd to begin making some real noise.  That was nothing however in comparison to their response to “An Ocean in Between the Waves”, which due in no small part to its extended solos received a generous applause and some hollers.

It’s clear that despite the affection the crowd had for the band and the new album, it didn’t inspire most of them to go back and pick up the early material, as cuts from Wagonwheel Blues and Slave Ambient were met with only the occasional cheer.  It was during these songs that The War On Drugs fell victim to the Crystal Ballroom Curse, as the overlapping of several effects pedals and similar-ranged instruments created a dense morass that made it hard to distinguish what was being played, even beyond the hazy effect intended by the material.  “These Arms Like Boulders” and “Come to the City” are gorgeous songs if you are familiar with them, but to the uninitiated can seem like mush, though the latter benefited from some nifty drumming that caught the eye of the crowd.  As many who have been to shows at the Crystal can attest, you need a top-notch sound man handling the mix or else everything can turn to crap.

Tuning up amid the haze; fog machine was working overtime

Tuning up amid the haze; fog machine was working overtime

Adam Granduciel kept the evening friendly with his crowd banter, talking about his love of Portland and how he was looking forward to seeing the Blazers play the next night at home (and he endeared himself to the crowd when some folks tried to correct him about the new name of the arena by saying, “It will always be the Rose Garden to me.”)  It didn’t seem at all like the band was weary from touring consistently for nine months, but instead that they had just hit their stride and were generally appreciative of getting to play another show.  The show still felt fresh, even if it was a similar script playing out each night.  As one would expect, “Red Eyes” had the crowd going nuts, but as it happened at the Wonder, “Eyes to the Wind” was the true highlight, with the fans giving that performance a hearty cheer to end the main set.  The encore left the casual fans a bit cold, but since they had heard what they came to hear, they couldn’t complain; meanwhile, I enjoyed going crazy at hearing “Baby Missiles” and its infectious beat once again.  And that was enough to help make the walk out the door seem twenty degrees warmer than the one coming in.

As for the opener, Summer Cannibals delivered a killer set of garage-influenced punk, a bit of a more harder-edged version of the Dum Dum Girls.  We had caught them earlier this year when they were the first openers for The Thermals down in Salem, but at least this time we were able to track them down and actually get their album.  We’ll see if it’s as good as their live show.