Friday, May 21, 2010


with Avi Buffalo, Lasers and Fast and Shit
April 10, 2010 at Lincoln Hall
Chicago, IL

How many musicians does it take to make a rock band?  Time was, maybe 30 years ago, the answer was pretty reliably, "four, give or take."  Guitar + guitar + bass + drums.  Done.  These days, plenty of 'bands' make a living on as little as two, and sometimes even one (with computerized accompaniment.)  In light of this, it can often be useful to consider what a band is able to accomplish given the number of performers it drags on stage.  The first of Japandroids' two opening acts, Lasers and Fast and Shit took the stage with a standard rock 4 piece set up (see above), yet barely managed anything remotely interesting, progressing lock-step and hammering onto the same notes all at once, and screaming vocals to overcompensate for (or embellish) their brash inelegance. There's only so much you can do with smash 'n grab rock, and LnFnS play music too simple to be metal, yet too boring to be much of anything else.  Given their dopily-juvenile band name, it seems clear that this is all by design, but you can definitely color me uninterested.

Avi Buffalo presented an even less enviable problem.  Announcing that it was their first show in Chicago, they began with nicely evocative lyrics, each phrase discernible, every word understandable (already an ugly juxtaposition with their predecessors.)  And it was pretty alright, but... huh?  It just didn't fit.  Sandwiched in between two hard-rocking guitar outfits was a band perfectly content to dole out four-minute slices of easy-listening, vaguely artful soft indie rock.  Just when you thought you were doomed to 30 minutes of staccato piano trill,  however, they smashed a hard rockin' outro, and everyone briefly took notice. The band had a blend of friendly, non threatening pop and capacity to almost-shred at a moment's notice. Eventually, though, the band's restraint came into full view. The crowd was disinterested, and my thoughts too turned to whom to pin this crime on.  Someone out there was guilty of booking this band to open for Japandroids, and their guilt had now been foisted onto this capable but outmatched little outfit from California.  Put this band in front of The Swell Season and they'll probably bring the house down. So--who's the asshole? Japandroids for booking them?  That's my vote.  Not cool, dudes.  Whether you genuinely like and want to promote 'em or not, this band is not a match for you, and you should know better.

In the last decade or so, the rock duo has  progressed from am occasional novelty to a grand and noble tradition. From the White Stripes to the Black Keys to DFA1979 and Local H (who were at the vanguard,) dozens of bands have proved what is possible with a guitar (or a bass) and a set of drums. Not surprisingly, the music produced by these groups has almost uniformly tended towards irreverent, boozy bluesy-rock.  Suitably sloppy and powerful, Japandroids quickly found a place for themselves. For those not fan-boyish enough to know the the difference (myself included,) they looked awfully familiar up on stage, both tall in black t-shirts and with bushy, curly brown hair. A box fan had been placed at the front of the stage, and the effect of the lead singers hair blowing wildly up while back-lit was a little corny, but not too off-putting.  Likewise, a smoke machine positioned directly under the drummers riser gave the illusion of a massive percussion ass-cloud every 5 minutes or so.  Not particularly spectacular execution by the Lincoln Hall crew.

Japandroids played the entirety of their most recent record "Post-Nothing," filling out their set-list with assorted singles and one-offs, as well as a copious smattering of covers. This is the dillemma of a touring band with only one legitimately recognizable album to its credit.  I while I'm not gonna pretend I recognized all of them right off the bat (I don't know who sings "Racer X," even though they said it when they introduced it,) but in general they were well chosen and well received.

The band played mostly well, although I did take issue with a few choices in the performance. One in particular I have experienced more than once--don't record the song with the high-pitched vocal if you don't plan to attempt it that way live. Do you think Kings of Leon would get away with doing 'Sex on Fire' to a packed stadium in a lower register?  I don't think so.  Acknowledge the sing-along factor and sing it how it sounds on the record.

As the evening neared its close. the band began to run out of songs.  They apparently felt the need to apologize for "I Quit Girls;" I've no idea why, as it's a great song and standout on the record. Not surprisingly, the band then had the balls to forgo the typical BS of leaving the stage and announced the encore in advance, which was another cover (Mclusky's "To Hell with Good Intentions.")

Japandroids are a fine band with some amazing songs that simply don't translate 100% to a live setting.  Doubly true in a mid-sized venue like Lincoln Hall, suitable for accompanying their growing fan base but not ideal in terms of conveying a loud, raucous atmosphere. (Empty Bottle or Metro would have probably done them better.)  Like a lot of rough-around-the-edges bands, their best shows may well be behind them, but it's not for their lack of trying.

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