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Getting warm: Hot Hot Heat's Steve Bays. Photo: Joe Putrock

Play That One About the Lady
By John Brodeur

Hot Hot Heat, French Kicks, the Unicorns
Northern Lights, Dec. 5

The last time Victoria, B.C.-based Hot Hot Heat came through town (at Valentines in April), their album, Make up the Breakdown, had just been rereleased by Warner Bros., and the lead single, “Bandages,” had recently been serviced to commercial radio. The college crowd, of course, had been hip to the band’s danceable indie rock for a while, and they packed the venue solid for one of the most energetic live performances this year.

A lot has changed in eight months. “Bandages” became an inescapable Top-10 modern-rock hit, and the band have steadily increased their profile with nonstop touring, television appearances and a string of less-successful follow-up singles. It could have been assumed that the kids would come out en force to see their new heroes at Northern Lights on Friday night, what with all the increased exposure presumably expanding their draw. In reality, the attendance was no larger than at the Valentine’s show and the crowd was decidedly standoffish. Case in point: One audience member was overheard shouting for “track number four.” Song titles, anyone? The detachment may have a lot to do with the change in venue. Last time around, singer Steve Bays bounced off the other band members like a free electron, and leapt about as if the floor were covered with molten lava. On the considerably more sterile Northern Lights stage, all the immediacy of a small club was lost, making the band members look out-of-place and terribly self-aware.

To their credit, the Heat gave it a good shot. Taking the stage to the opening riff from their current hit, “Talk to Me, Dance With Me,” they kicked off a 50-minute set, culled almost entirely from Breakdown and their previous EP, Knock Knock Knock. Some of the high points came early: The two should-be singles, “Oh, Goddamnit,” with its Strokes-y bass line, and the fashion-victim critique, “Get in or Get Out,” were as engaging as they are on record, and displayed the band’s pop sensibilities in full flower. Unfortunately, as the set wore on, the Heat appeared to be losing steam, and it became more and more apparent that the audience was just waiting around to hear one song. By the time they played their big hit to close the set, it felt rote and perfunctory. Even the sea of flailing teenage bodies at the foot of the stage seemed color-by-numbers. The band axed their planned encore, apparently due to Bays having shredded his voice, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided to call it a night when the crowd started filing out immediately after the last song.

The Brooklyn-based French Kicks may have been another reason that the headliners felt stale, as their warm-up set made all other comers look positively silly. Equipped with an army of keyboards, a bottomless supply of Gibson SGs, and a sound that mines the best elements of ’80s college rock and jagged early-’90s D.C. postpunk, the Kicks came off as a smarter, hipper version of their touring partners. The bottom-heavy sound mix obscured some of the subtleties of the dense arrangements, but their performance didn’t miss a beat. Nick Stumpf appears to have attended the Stephen Malkmus academy for artsy lead-singer cool, and the band nailed some soulful three-part harmonies on “Wrong Side” and “Close to Modern” from last year’s One Time Bells LP. Watch for the new Kicks record in 2004, when Hot Hot Heat will likely be opening for them instead of the other way around.

The Unicorns opened the evening with a brief set of songs from their fine debut, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? The Montreal natives oozed shticky charisma and songwriting prowess, but they failed to capture the audience’s attention more than fleetingly with their synth-fueled folk implosion.

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