Karen O sashays onstage Wednesday night at Radio City Music Hall looking for all the world like a Mega Man villain: “Brooklynman,” “Bowlcutman,” “Spazzman,” “Shriekman,” “Indierocksexsymbolman.” Should that be “Spazzwoman”? Are Mega Man villains gender-neutral? Can she see at all through her blocky-Kanye-glasses-attached-to-a-clunky-license-plate-holder headdress situation? Is the jubilant, demonic voice she uses to snarl, “On your feet, New York City!” as the curtain rises even human? Has she donned a cape just so she can dramatically tear it off halfway through the first song? And how many wardrobe changes will this show involve? Probably, who knows, probably not, apparently, definitely, several.
Great on all that, the fashion extravagance especially. Last week was a splendid one for Bizarre Costume Overload, between Karen’s finery and the previous night’s terrifying, exhausting Sunn O))) doom-metal spectacular, the Brooklyn Masonic Temple enveloped in thick, greasy smoke, no one visible onstage for nearly all of the first of two punishing hours, before, slowly emerging from the mist—oh, Jesus—is that Voltron? Satanic Voltron? Shooting lasers out of his fingertips and shrieking in a voice that is definitely not human? (That guy’s other notable outfit, a grotesque half-man, half-tree Mr. Potato Bug get-up, is too mortifying to even discuss in detail.) Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a similarly excessive but, blessedly, much more lighthearted appreciation for production values: a Garden of Giant Eyeballs, a couple more blow-up giant eyeballs bouncing around the crowd, voluminous confetti cannons, Karen’s constant state of sartorial bewilderment, and enormous, sparkly Y’s that descend from the ceiling during “Gold Lion,” their worst song, in an attempt to distract you. This attempt is successful.
It is wonderful to see them in a room this spacious and elegant: “First time I saw these guys, they were playing a place as big as this bathroom,” mutters a gentleman patron before the show. (Probably smaller, and way less clean, and with roughly 55 fewer urinals.) But the YYYs have belonged to this big-shot, festival-headlining, uptown milieu far longer than they haven’t at this point. They oughta be old pros by now. Which they sort of are, and sort of aren’t, and this, finally, is their appeal: the uneasy truce between their affinity for increasingly dancefloor-based slickness and their natural tendency toward nasty, brutish, punkish abrasion.
Plenty of that comes through in drummer Brian Chase’s trad-grip stateliness and nonetheless primordial stomp, or guitarist Nick Zinner’s blaring, chaotic, remedial-sounding scuzz caterwaul, which he achieves via a Sam Ash–worth of shiny guitar pedals that almost completely surround him. On the other hand, both they and their keyboard-plinking, acoustic-strumming auxiliary friend might as well not exist. We have waited more than half a decade now for another frontman as manic and emotionally invested and captivating, sonically and visually, as Karen O, and the world has replied with . . . Lady Gaga. So, luxuriate in the full KO experience: the wacky outfits, the giggly shrieking, the spastic dancing. She hops on one leg a lot, faux-aggro Native American style. She sips often from a bottle of water, but generally sprays it all skyward. She sticks the whole microphone in her mouth, tilts way back, and screeches extra-demonically. And she delivers all her between-song banter like a hyperactive five-year-old impersonating Sam Kinison, an excitable ramble dissolving immediately into ear-bleeding bursts of high-pitched hysterics: “It’s time for a New York City love song! This song was written for you, New York City!“
That song is “Maps,” of course, delivered here as a heartstring-thwacking sing-along encore, slowed down, de-fuzzed, and gussied up with a string quartet. A fine successor to Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” this. The YYYs keep vying for another apocalyptic power ballad: This year’s It’s Blitz, though disguised as a frivolous synth-pop dance party, takes too many turgid swings at that particular piñata, but connects at least once, on “Skeletons,” vulnerable and gorgeous, a simple and magnificent keyboard melody again conjuring up Cyndi’s electric ladyland, here augmented by a light dusting of both confetti and smoke, though not nearly to Sunn O))) extremes, thank goodness.
The gnarly, uncouth punk shit plays better here, a nice jarring contrast to Radio City’s overwhelming primness. (Though boomeranging your little glowstick thingies off the balcony and beaning poor unsuspecting folks on the floor below is a major pastime there these days.) “Cheated Hearts,” off 2006’s otherwise wan Show Your Bones, has both the pop-gem restraint and snarling ill manners of a vintage Pretenders jam: “Sometimes I think that I’m bigger than the sound” excellently sums up Karen’s worldview, and tonight she deigns to spread it, jumping down into the pit and giving everyone in the front row a turn at the mic for the song’s “oooh-wooo-ooooh” breakdown hook, a moment both hilarious and profoundly empowering. You, too, can be a Mega Man villain someday.
I’ve seen hundreds of worthy opening bands mercilessly jeered at or ignored entirely by a hostile crowd that oftentimes is barely even there at all. And still I wince as ESG—without question, the Bronx’s finest hard-funk sister act, reunited (again) 25-plus years after their proto-hip-hop glory years—regales a crowd at about 10 percent capacity and 95 percent total disinterest, their retort at this mistreatment inherent in their song titles: “You’re No Good,” “Step Off,” “You Make No Sense,” and “Erase You.” Man, “Erase You” is fantastic, a thunderous and lethally blunt bass-drums pocket easily withstanding some shrill, wayward guitar. (Borrow a few of Brian’s pedals, please.) As pure, percussive, hard-headed hedonism, this stuff is unmatched, which is why they get to introduce “UFO” as “a very sampled song,” and why anyone worshipping at Karen O’s altar needs to fully absorb it. Shake it off, ladies. They don’t love you like I love you.