Live: Emo Titans My Chemical Romance

mcr.jpgMarching-band skeletons probably still scare someone's parents

My Chemical Romance + Rise Against Nassau Coliseum February 23, 2007

There was plenty of pomp on display at My Chemical Romance's Friday night Nassau Coliseum show: a haunted-house backdrop, a pair of insufficiently inflated blimps hanging precariously on either side of the stage, a frontman who wouldn't stop referring to himself and his band in the third person. But the show's most telling moment might've been the one that cut hardest through all the theatrics. Midway through the band's set, frontman Gerard Way told the people in the venue-floor moshpit, which honestly didn't look all that hectic from where I was sitting, that they needed to pick up anyone who fell. If you've been to five basement hardcore shows, you've heard that command at least seven times, but you probably haven't seen anyone break character to give that command, mostly because part of the character of basement hardcore shows is that no one has a character to break. But Way had been playing some sort of glam-goth-pop superstar all night. He started off the show strapped to a gurney, pulling a sheet off his head the way Alice Cooper must've once emerged from a coffin, and proceeded to lead his band, matching black marching-band uniforms and all, through the entirety of their new album, The Black Parade, playing all songs in exact running order. The Black Parade is a concept-album about cancer (or something), and Way took the concept far enough that he chopped most of his hair off and dyed the rest of it blonde before the album's release, supposedly so he could better stay in touch with his character (or something). The hair is back to black and growing in again, but that didn't stop Way from referring to the band as "the Black Parade" throughout or lockstep-marching around the stage like a deranged dictator. So when he finally broke down and directly addressed the crowd, he threw everything back into relief: My Chemical Romance isn't an arena band, at least not yet; they're still an emo band playing at an arena and pulling out every trick they know to convince us that they know what they're doing.

I'd never been to the Nassau Coliseum before Friday night, and with good reason: it's at least a fucking hour and a half outside the city, and the accumulated cost of cabs and Long Island Railroad tickets tends to be more than I'd pay to see almost any band in the first place. As for the building itself, it's a depressing gray hulk at the middle of a freezing parking lot; the idea that life could exist inside it seems almost a defiance of nature. Unlike Madison Square Garden or even Continental Airlines Arena, it offers no immediate evidence that it's anywhere near New York City; blink and you could be in Phoenix or Indianapolis. MCR didn't sell the building out, which only added to the overwhelming sense of desolation; we were a long way from basement-show territory. Even if the band couldn't quite bring the night to life, though, the kids in the crowd could. Even with a two-thirds-full building, the scream when the lights went down and the gurney hit the stage was near-deafening, and it kept up all through the set and the encore. The overwhelmingly young crowd was a weird hybridized gathering of high school tribes. The jocks and punks and goths and metalheads and dorks all shopped at Hot Topic, and they all wore those gloves with the skeleton-hands; you had to look closely to figure out which was which. In a way, My Chemical Romance has become the ultimate circa-2007 suburban high school band by finding an uneasy middle ground between two genres, MySpace emo and arena-glam, which reward obsessiveness in similar ways. MCR haven't blown up as thoroughly as Fall Out Boy, their closest competitors, but they've kept the hearts and minds of their fanbase by going for awkwardly ambitious sweep while Fall Out Boy have alienated half their base by going full-on dickhead-pop. And so it didn't feel like that much of a chore to get on the train out to Hempstead; it felt more like college, when a bunch of friends piled into cars and made the three-hour drive from Syracuse to Albany to see the reunited Weezer. At times like this, the trip matters at least as much as the destination.

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MCR sometimes manage to walk the arena-punk line in thrilling and unexpected ways. "Sleep," for instance, is a total lighter-swaying power-ballad, but its structure gives it away as something more stealthily basement-friendly. Every element of the song screams arena: its soaring guitars, its scratchy falsetto, its massive, bulldozing chorus. But the song ends with a slow, prolonged buildup to a screamingly cathartic climax; the ingredients may be different, but it's exactly the same sort of delayed-gratification surge that youth-crew warriors like Strife used to work into all their songs. To hear hardcore tricks executed, and executed well, in a hockey-barn context is a perverse little joy. But I couldn't escape the nagging impression that MCR's reach slightly exceeds its abilities. It was fun to hear the band do The Black Parade all the way through, but it also meant that the show peaked three songs in, with the mock-operatic single "Welcome to the Black Parade." When I remarked that Way's helium yowl sounded pretty good for all two hours he was onstage, Ryan Dombal pointed out that he'd been holding the mic out so the crowd could hit the high notes for him. About half the album's songs boast hooks big enough to reverberate and pick up steam in a venue that size, but that also means that half the songs don't. After finishing up the album, the band reemerged in street clothes, referring to themselves as My Chemical Romance instead of the Black Parade and playing older songs. It was a neat conceit, but it also exposed the band somewhat; those older songs just did not hold up in a setting as cavernous as this one. To their credit, MCR never seemed as out of place as their openers, the wound-up melodicore hacks Rise Against, who sounded exactly like mid-90s pop-punkers Face to Face only shittier. Indeed, MCR may be the only one of the current generation of MySpace emo bands whose music sounds even sort of big enough to shake an arena. They're onto something, but they aren't quite there yet. I'll be pulling for them.

Voice review: Sean Howe on My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade

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