Is it a bad thing when the hardest-rocking highlight of your show is a cover of a Saturday Night Live skit? Julian Casablancas may have been (and may still be) one of the driving forces behind new millennium garage-wave heroes the Strokes, but his energetic version of "I Wish It Was Christmas Today" had concert-goers exclaiming, "That was the jam of the night!"
Casablancas played fleshed-out, full-band versions of his synthpop solo album at the Pageant last night. Phrazes for the Young is a dance-floor diversion, and channeling that, he didn't take himself too seriously last night in front of a half-full, main-floor-only crowd. The notoriously un-chatty singer wandered the stage in red skinny jeans, white high top sneakers and leather jacket, and actually made quite a bit of small talk with the crowd. When someone yelled out, "Hey Julian, when's Christmas?" Casablancas laughed, and then cued the band: "Inappropriate Christmas so-o-o-ng!"
Casablancas and his six-piece band rocked the track like they had written the big, bright pop choruses, which revealed something larger about the lightheartedness of the show and the whole solo project. He played all of Young, plus a couple of Strokes faves, and even a cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" -- which, for better or worse, was a perfect sonic fit. For most of the show, the floor looked like hipster heaven: Bodies bopped to synths beloved for their irony, undeniable dance appeal and cheesiness.
Not to say the show never dragged: a new track missed the mark early on, and Casablancas opened the set with cow-poke plod "Ludlow Street," although the latter's sing-along lyrics - "Everything seems to go wrong when I stop drinking" - were crowd-pleasers.
On the record, Casablancas seemed to never meet an electronic tic or drum machine he didn't like, so I didn't know what to expect from the live sound. Props to the arrangements and the musicians, who realized the songs as chock-full of cross- and counter-melodies, without muddying the overall effect. Everyone except Casablancas and the main drummer picked up a guitar or bass during the show, at least three members played percussion at some point and the configuration included two keyboardists. Over the distorted Tetris synths of "River of Brakelights," one band member played keys with one hand and kept a cymbal stuttering with the other. Show-closer "Tourist," a vague dirge on the record, even took on a snarling groove on stage, with Danielle Haim providing back-up vocals.
Speaking of Haim, her own band - also called Haim - opened the show admirably, cinching up the small crowd on the Pageant's first floor. Led by the three Haim sisters, Este, Danielle and Alana all play guitar with gusto, wail in mature, expressive voices like they would kill at Linda Perry karaoke and bang out polyrhythms on the drums, their long hair scraping the drums. The sounds built on classics and the performers were fresh and authentic.
After the show eldest sister Este, 23, the band's funny, flirty mouthpiece, explained how Haim linked up with this tour: "Basically, it's nepotism. Danielle was on tour with Jenny Lewis on percussion, and Julian caught their New York show just as he had finished [recording his solo album]." Danielle was recruited for Casablancas' drum line, and the family affair -- Mom runs merch, Dad drives the van -- came along to open. Haim's first album is still in the mixing stage, and Este is finishing up a degree in "music business" at UCLA, but said, "I don't know what I want to do."
She's on the right tour. Whatever musical and professional course his career takes, with the Strokes or on his own, guitars or lasers, Casablancas' solo show seemed like a chance to throw in everything and the kitchen sink, wear a feather in your hair -- and most important, to have fun.
Setlist: 1. Ludlow Street 2. River of Brakelights 3. Hard to Explain (Strokes) 4. New One (as written on setlist) 5. 11th Dimension 6. I'll Try Anything (Strokes) 7. Left and Right in the Dark 8. I Wish It Was Christmas Today 9. Dancing in the Dark (Springsteen cover) 10. Out of the Blue 11. 4 Chords of the Apocalypse
Encore: 12. Glass 13. Tourist
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