March 30, 2007
Before Friday night, I’d never seen LCD Soundsystem live. That means that I sat on a couch next to James Murphy with my tape recorder in my lap and listened to him rant for about 45 minutes about how music would be better if bands took their live shows as seriously as he did and how his band’s live show has no serious competition now, and I did this before I ever got a chance to figure out firsthand whether his grandiose claims even had any connection to reality. It also means that I spent something like four years reading gushing live reviews of LCD Soundsystem shows. That’s a big buildup, a buildup so big that I was expecting something apocalyptically awesome. I was also expecting James Murphy to be a monster frontman, which isn’t quite what I got. When I interviewed him, Murphy talked about James Brown and David Yow as inspirations and bragged of killing himself onstage and mentioned that he’s spent eighteen months doing extensive jiujitsu training. But when he’s up there, he doesn’t do anything all that physical. He shout-sings his words passionately, he futzes around with a stand-up drumkit or an electronic gizmo, and he sort of bangs his head; he’s not exactly a force of nature. And he still put together one of the fiercest, most exciting live shows I’ve seen since arriving in New York. And he did it with groove, not with theatrics, an even more difficult proposition.
Murphy’s touring band isn’t especially big; it’s just five people, including the rumpled-suit guy from Hot Chip. The supporting players trade instruments and scurry around in the background while Murphy parks his heavy frame up front, leading the attack. And it really is an attack. The band concentrates on the harder, more rhythmic LCD tracks; “Someone Great,” Sound of Silver‘s deliriously pretty peak, was notably absent from the set-list. And those songs that sounded dense and insistent are exponentially more so live. Most of the time, only maybe two members of the band are actually playing drums or percussion, but everyone plays with a sort of laserlike rhythmic focus, treating their guitars and basses and electronic gizmos as if they were drums. Even Murphy’s vocals have a sort of staccato insistence, just one more layer in a rich, detailed metrical bedrock. Those beats manage to somehow simultaneously achieve hypnotically visceral insistence and a twitchy, neurotic humanity; they don’t split the difference between the mechanical and the organic so much as seamlessly fuse the two. The melodies themselves submit themselves completely to the beat; “All My Friends” picks up a propulsive edge that the recorded version only hints at. Most LCD songs are already pretty long, but the band stretches them out even longer onstage, letting the tracks sink into themselves and develop according to their own logic, building and ebbing and cresting until they’re these breathlessly frantic epics. The band pushes those tracks to the breaking point before just letting them end suddenly, giving the crowd a quick second to catch its collective breath and then launching into the next one. The band played for about an hour and a half on Friday night, but they seemed like they were just getting going as they left the stage.
About a third of the way through the set, I had to run to the bathroom. I was already pretty close to the back of the room, but I had to spend a while squeezing through the packed-in crowd to make it out and then in again, and I noticed that even at the back of the room, people were completely into it, singing along loud, pumping fists, doing all sorts of big-rock-show shit, pretty impressive considering that the back of the room is usually schmooze-territory at New York shows and that LCD Soundsystem is a particularly schooze-friendly band. That experience reminded me of the one day I spent at the Reading Festival in 1997. My friend Nat and I were in England for a couple of weeks, and we spent one day of it standing in a field and watching vast throngs of people singing along to songs we didn’t know. That night’s headliners were the Manic Street Preachers, but the group with second billing was the Orb; I remember being blown away that such a frilly, arty, faceless techno group could hold the attention of something like 75,000 concertgoers in this weirdass little country. The Orb themselves were a bit boring: two head-nodding silhouettes cranking out slow, wispy beats in a big metal pyramid surrounded by trippy Lawnmower Man projections. And so we decided to check out the Eels or whoever on the second stage, but that meant navigating our way backwards through this enormous crowd. Even hundreds yards from the stage, though, people were still staring rapt and stoned at that metal pyramid, and, as the crowd started to thin, a lot of those people were dancing around little bonfires they’d made by lighting piles of garbage aflame. The group might not have been much of a spectacle, and neither was the music, but the people certainly were. The Bowery Ballroom isn’t much bigger than my last apartment in Baltimore; it’s certainly only about a bazillionth the size of that field in Reading. But there’s still something undeniably powerful about seeing a band that can create that kind of fervor even in the people leaning against the back wall, especially when I do know those songs, especially when music is already a spectacle unto itself. This might’ve just been an early stop on a yearlong tour for the band, one of four planned New York appearances, but that didn’t stop this room full of people from treating them like returning heroes. It’s one thing when a band can turn great songs into anthems onstage, and it’s another when everyone in the room treats those anthems as anthems. So yeah, this show fulfilled my expectations and then some. LCD Soundsystem is something to see.
Voice feature: Tom Breihan on LCD Soundsystem
Voice review: Mike Powell on LCD Soundsystem’s 45:33
Voice review: Michaelangelo Matos on LCD Soundsystem’s LCD Soundsystem
Voice review: Rob Tannenbaum on LCD Soundsystem at the Bowery Ballroom