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Show your bones: Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Loud Love

By John Brodeur

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Northern Lights, Aug. 1

Karen O has quite a fan club. When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made their area debut Saturday night, some fans dressed like Ms. O, others held up signs expressing their adoration—but all eyes were locked on the singer’s every move. It’s easy to see why this woman elicits such fascination: She has qualities that could be referred to as “iconic,” from the distinctive voice to the unique fashion sense; she’s marketable enough to be mainstream, but dangerous enough to stay “indie” (even if her band have been working for Interscope since 2003). Foremost, she has that unique ability to make everyone in a room either want to fuck her or be her. Now that’s a rock star.

Granted, Karen O pretty much is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but it should not be overlooked that there’s a band at work here. Brian Chase’s Weinbergian stiffness and Nick Zinner’s creative minimalism with a six-string electric guitar define the band’s sound as much as O’s shrieks and whoops. That keep-it-simple-stupid approach to composition has allowed the band to develop their music from short, sharp, punk-influenced blasts to the dancefloor mini-epics of their latest record, this spring’s stunning It’s Blitz! The fans have gone with them because, for all the band’s supposed quirks, they know their way around a good song: The gorgeous “Maps” (performed acoustic for this show) at one end of the spectrum, the death disco of “Heads Will Roll” at the other, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are based on solid material. And when O gets a hold of it, hoo boy.

At Northern Lights, the trio, augmented occasionally by instrumentalist David Pajo, ripped through a 65-minute set that visited primarily the latest set and Fever to Tell, the 2003 debut that landed them on the national radar. They packed a lot into their relatively brief set: The new “Dull Life” opened, with O offering the first flash of her trademark mischievous grin; “Gold Lion” followed, its confident stomp calling the party to order. And then, as if to restate the point, confetti and strobes galore for “Black Tongue,” as the crowd went into a frenzy.

The singer seemed taken aback by the crowd’s outpouring of emotion—or maybe just their decibel level. Perhaps it had been a while since she’d been so close to the fans (this was reportedly the smallest venue played on the band’s U.S. tour) or maybe she was just having a really good time, but she could barely traverse the lyric of encore ballad “Poor Song” without breaking into giggle fits. It was cute, much like the lyric (“cool kids, they belong together”)—which she dedicated to the fans in a non-ironic, but still totally ironic, way.

(It’s also possible that she found the heat to be comical: The temperature inside Northern Lights approached unbearable. When O donned a heavy leather jacket to perform “Zero” near the end of the set, she appeared to be willing herself on with laughter, the sheer ridiculousness of the situation plain to see.)

The apex came mid-set with the cryptic lyric of “Skeletons” (“Fall asleep/Spin the sky/Skeleton me/Love, don’t cry”) and the subtleties of its recorded version turned all Joshua Tree-size thanks to the simple application of blue lights (and the palpable humidity). This led to a pulsing, larger-than-life take on another new track, which caused O to comment, “Best ‘Hysteric’ ever!”

Working For It

AC/DC

Times Union Center, Aug. 2

My rock band in high school learned to play together via “The Jack” and “Whole Lotta Rosie.” That was almost 20 years ago, but somehow, until Sunday, I had yet to see AC/DC perform. I hadn’t been avoiding them; the timing just never worked out. When the band’s latest, Black Ice, was getting its promotional blitz last fall, it started to look like time was running out. It seemed they were beginning to recycle old ideas— the riffs were oddly familiar, and most of the album’s song titles (“Big Jack,” “Rock N’ Roll Train”) look like they came from a Name Generator Web site—in an effort to secure one last victory lap. “I must remedy this situation before Brian Johnson’s head finally explodes,” I said. “I will see this tour.”

I was joking about the recycling thing, of course. They’re the most reliable brand in rock & roll for that very reason: AC/DC make AC/DC music. So I knew what to expect going into Sunday’s show. And sure enough, this AC/DC show was, according to my research, pretty much exactly like any other AC/DC show: Big riffs, big spectacle, big balls. Nearly critic-proof in its sheer awesomeness. A giant stage was framed by ramps and walls of Marshall stacks, a (most likely) intentionally phallic catwalk jutting out into the arena floor. Guitarist Malcolm Young and bassist Cliff Williams stood pretty much stock-still at the back of the stage, flanking drummer Phil Rudd (trademark cigarette expertly dangling from his lip), while Johnson marched around, pumping his free arm like it was pulling him forward.

In addition to the now-arena-requisite video screens and firepots, special effects and props included such classics as a locomotive (“Rock N’ Roll Train”), a 50-foot inflatable woman (“Whole Lotta Rosie”), a half-ton bell (“Hells Bells”), and a row of cannons (“For Those About to Rock, We Salute You”). Cannons, dude.

But big statements aside, there were a few actual pinch-yourself moments. The first came three songs in, with “Back In Black.” Just the classics left out of an AC/DC set would be enough for a Best Of compilation; this show was so stacked with hits that they were able to play one of the best known rock songs of all time, third.

And then there’s Angus.

At 54 years old, Angus Young still runs laps around the stage like a hyperactive schoolboy. The finger wag, the bastardized Chuck Berry strut, the “oy!” chant on “T.N.T.,” the striptease on “The Jack”: It’s all there. But with Johnson pushing his voice with everything he’s got—and he sings from his knees, his crotch, whatever gets him there—it’s easy to overlook how hard Young is working. So he reminds you with a 10-minute solo segment that takes him from a raised platform at arena center to the top of the stage platform. He pulls out all the stops, dropping to his knees and falling over flat mid-solo; he eggs the audience into a call and response. It goes on for way too long, but feels oddly brief. This is the zenith of all things arena-rock. If it’s not the best rock show you’ve ever seen, it’s not for lack of effort on the band’s part.

—John Brodeur

Conversation Starter

Billy Bragg

The Egg, Aug. 2

Billy Bragg started a bit early for his Sunday evening show at the Egg, playing and sipping tea through a nearly two-and-a-half-hour set with no intermission. But Bragg is never one to let the song playing get in the way of the joke telling and political observations, so his actual set list—containing a few recent songs, a mini-set of Woody Guthrie covers, and a dozen or so classics from the early days—spanned what may have been an hours’ worth of material for a less loquacious artist.

That’s no downside: The trenchant verbal commentary is a major part of Bragg’s entertainment value. His off-the-cuff jokes are usually pretty darn funny. “I made the mistake of walking into the hotel carrying a guitar and wearing shorts. People went wild,” Bragg riffed, weaving strands of commentary about the AC/DC show happening next door with his observation that Americans tend to mistake Brits for Australians.

Bragg’s political commentary was far more serious stuff. He sadly reflected on the loss of soldiers in Afghanistan before “Like Soldiers Do,” a poignant antiwar song from early in his career. And he gave a political pep-talk to the audience about possibilities in the Obama era prior to “I Keep Faith,” a wary but hopeful more recent song. (“Do not give in to the cynicism,” he admonished. “This song is about my faith in your ability to change the world.”) For even the most liberal in Bragg’s largely left-of-center audiences, it can be somewhat uncomfortable to hear a Brit point out American failings, from our inability to pass universal health care to the constant interruptions in American football. But the crowd at the Egg took it as intended: like a medicine with a bitter taste but potential healing properties.

Fresh off a gig at the Newport Folk Festival, which celebrated its 50th anniversary the day before, Bragg devoted an early portion of his set to the songs of late folk legend Woody Guthrie. In the late 1990s, Guthrie’s daughter Nora invited Bragg and the band Wilco to rummage through her father’s many unreleased tracks, setting the words to music (Guthrie had not written down musical notations for the songs). “She encouraged us to use those songs that added something to Woody’s legacy,” Bragg noted at the Egg of his Wilco collaboration on the Mermaid Avenue albums, which brought a joy and lightheartedness to less serious Guthrie songs like “Ingrid Bergman.” Bragg sang the tune in his heavily accented but expressive voice, which sounded as strong as ever, after explaining that Guthrie filled the tune with bawdy metaphors referencing the Swedish film star’s affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini.

The title of Bragg’s latest album, Mr. Love & Justice, is a self-referential take on the songwriter’s duel personality as both a social justice activist and a chronicler of romantic heartbreak. At the Egg, his most resonant songs were often the later, including Bragg standbys like “The Saturday Boy,” the ultimate unrequited love song punctuated by a whistle solo, and the intensely heartfelt “Must I Paint You a Picture.”

—Kirsten Ferguson

Good Good Weird

Gang Gang Dance

Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, Mass., Aug. 2

In big neon block letters that stretch from shoulder to shoulder, neck to waist, the T-shirt at the merch table probably best described the way the band started into their set: “Oh Shit Gang Gang.” Brian DeGraw’s effervescent synthesizers condensed in an ominous cloud of treble and then the cute girl with the bangs (Lizzie Bougatsos)—who you’d expect, in any other band, to start prancing with the mic all debonair—started to pummel her congas with xylophone mallets.

There’s plenty about the experimental quartet that continues to surprise, even in light of their longtime associations with kindred Brooklyn tweakers Animal Collective and Black Dice. Amid all the anachronistic trappings of the terminal postmodern—retro-futurist synths, chaotic electronics, ’80s dance beats, neo-tribal bombast—Gang Gang Dance are forging a sound (indeed, an experience) that has turned a corner from their noisy origins. It might be proper (however, unintentionally pejorative) to call it a hipster drum circle. With patience and precision that challenge the scene’s notorious A.D.D., the band have become expert at stacking electronic samples with acoustic percussion to create tracks that rely primarily upon rhythm, and legitimately groove.

DeGraw pushed the PA system like a techno DJ, drenching the mix at times with loud space and delay, while drummer Tim Dewitt dispensed an unrelenting mixture of rock, house, dubstep, and tropicalia beats on his kit. Along with Josh Diamond’s effect-laden guitar work, it’s a style that relies more on cycle, texture, and repetition than meandering experimentation. In fact, there’s a certain ritual to the show that seems to transcend the nihilism of arch hipsterdom. When Bougatsos sings (through a microphone with hand- triggered effects), it’s deep and passionate, almost tidal like Bjork. And, although it often takes the band several minutes to get there, the groove at its peak is unabashedly positive, even sublime.

They might get short-shrift in the post-daydream-nation experimental trifecta of Animal Collective, etc., but when the band organized the East Coast performance of the Boredoms’ 88-drummer “Boadrum” last August, it proved that GGD are the heir apparent to that Japanese band’s ecstatic animism. This set was similarly rough, noisy, and a bit unruly, but it was visceral and inescapably present for the slim hour in which they performed. Bouncing and swaying onstage, Bougatsos paused only once during a technical delay to confess that they’re “actually Sioux tribal warriors.” It’s the kind of statement that would seem ironic coming out of any band that didn’t have a founding member who was struck dead by lightning after offering his body to the sky on a Chinatown rooftop. But as strange and unlikely as they can seem, Gang Gang Dance put meaning behind every bit of the ritual.

—Josh Potter

Everything, All at Once

Bang on a Can Marathon

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Aug. 1

I don’t have many traditions, but this is now officially one of them: the annual Bang on a Can porary music extravaganza that wraps up the New York City group’s forward-looking, open-ended, and open-hearted summer residency at MASS MoCA. I went last year and liked it; this year I loved it. If BOAC did this every month, I’d go every month.

Arriving about an hour and a half in, I learned I’d already missed a Meredith Monk, a David Zorn and a Thom Yorke piece. D’oh! As the next four hours flew by in a flash, leaving me wanting more, you can bet I won’t make the same mistake again. I’m getting there early next time.

The day was an utter mélange of styles and instruments. The first couple of pieces, part of an Eastern European suite of works, featured an ensemble of violin, bass flute, several bass clarinets, heavily treated electric guitar, drum kit, and the extraordinary young Kyrgyzstani musicians Kambar Kalendarov and Kutmanaaly Sultanbekov, who played various wind and string instruments with names like Chopo choor, sybyzgy and temir ooz komyz. The pieces were deeply funky, melodic, and most of all they were fun, with band members chanting and clapping when they weren’t playing.

Space won’t allow me to go long on any of this, but my highest points were Julia Wolfe’s piece for four drummers; John Adams’ hypnotic string-ensemble piece “Shaker Loops”; Todd Reynolds’ heroic solo violin performance, “Light Is Calling,” before a three-screen Bill Morrison projection; George Antheil’s four-piano, mondo-percussion-and-electronic-sound masterpiece “Ballet Mecanique”; and the return of the Kyrgyzstan guys, playing traditional music in traditional garb, and just plain rocking the house. But there wasn’t a single thing all day I didn’t like. A lot.

The day was split into three two-hour sessions, each with a half-dozen or so works, and the audience is allowed to drift in and out of the theater and the concert was blasted to the outdoor courtyard so you didn’t miss anything. What a terrific, relaxed vibe. The Bang on a Can Marathon is summertime.

—Paul Rapp


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