Live: Faith No More Invade Williamsburg, Still Care a Lot

Faith No More East River State Park Friday, July 2

We are gathered here this evening with our backs to the sunset to watch a reunited Faith No More play the East River State Park, a former shipping dock in Williamsburg consisting of seven mostly un-shaded acres, part concrete slab, part lawn, part Juicy Juice-sponsored playground. At the water's edge, there's a beach about three feet deep. A proud representative from the Open Space Alliance informs us that this is now the largest outdoor venue in New York City. So there are at least two big deals to think about: FNM's first East Coast show in more than ten years, and the fact that it's happening in Williamsburg, a neighborhood whose local culture flowered in part out of an ideological rejection of stuff like $45-ticket hard-rock shows where the beer tickets and the beer are kept under separate tents.

This is all acknowledged almost immediately by their singer, Mike Patton, who says something encouraging and perfunctory like "Hey, Brooklyn!" but follows it up with, "Though you guys are all probably from Boston." The crowd immediately boos this, either because they're actually from New York (or Jersey), or because they get that Patton is insinuating that real New Yorkers, the demure and culturally literate kind, wouldn't stoop to their creepy, boorish music. But this is how Patton--who hobbles to the mic in a peach-colored suit and carries a cane--makes jokes.

The show is loud, precise, surprising, and surprisingly great. They open with a Peaches & Herb cover and then play some thrash with a prominent synth-string line. There are moments of easy listening and intense dissonance, deep soul and Vegas schlock. They can't keep themselves from indulging in big, glorious, and anthemic moments, but Patton's quasi-operatic tenor always sounds like it's about to crack up into laughter. This is a band whose biggest hit was actually just called "Epic," a funk-metal-rap hybrid whose lyrics compulsively talk about an unspecified "it"--and I guess the impulse there is that instead of writing a heroic song filled with abstractions, they wrote a heroic song about abstraction, and finished it with a dream-like piano part more flagrantly beautiful and European-sounding than anything Queen ever recorded. As an encore, they play "Be Aggressive," a cheerleader-style sing-a-long about fellatio written by the band's out keyboardist, Roddy Bottum, who said he just wanted to make Patton uncomfortable by giving him a song with first-person lyrics about sucking dick. Like Steely Dan, their music has a built-in suspicion of the genre it's usually categorized as.

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For the first time, I get the feeling that they're almost like a '90s version of the Doors: dark, arty, and imbued with unlikely mass appeal. Both Patton and Jim Morrison channel an ethereal spirit that feels stiflingly masculine but somehow not date-rape macho--or, if it's macho, it's macho in a self-loathing way. (It's like how horror-movie nerds are people who seek out scary and aggressive worlds, but usually aren't scary or aggressive people.) But Morrison, either by weakness of will or just plain inherent vice, turned into the kind of fat alcoholic Patton sings about on Angel Dust's "RV": "Someone taps me on the shoulder every five minutes/Nobody speaks English anymore/Would anyone tell me if I was getting... stupider?"

I'd been thinking about the Doors because of a joke that one of tonight's openers, Neil Hamburger, told about Jim Morrison. Hamburger's whole act is being a nasty, out-of touch comedian who wears a tuxedo and finishes most of his jokes with a deep, wet cough. "Why was Jim Morrison buried in a coffin that was ten feet long?" he asks. "Because they had to make room for his dunce cap." People boo him, which, in the context of Neil Hamburger, is applause. Later, Patton calls him "America's funnyman," in case you didn't already realize how passionately jaundiced Patton is.

Halfway through the break on "Midlife Crisis," their second-biggest modern-rock-radio hit, the band stops playing and lets the audience sing part of the chorus, which goes, "You're perfect, yes it's true, but without me you're only you." Patton once said he wrote the song after watching Madonna frantically change her image in the early to mid-1990s. To any band, reunited or not, this would be the glory moment, the sublime, the oceanic, the feeling children dream of without having words for it. Patton stares into the screaming crowd, past the river to the Manhattan skyline. As soon as the chorus finishes, Bottum plays the horn break from Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke," a song so uncomplicatedly optimistic that mocking it is something you might do to warm up before mocking someone in a wheelchair. Patton just stands there like he's at a company picnic or a Bar Mitzvah, waving his hand back and forth, side to side, back and forth, side to side.


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