If Julian Casablancas wanted to take the easy route, he would just headline festivals with the band that made him famous.
It also would have been easier for the 36-year-old singer to follow up his first solo album with more danceable synth pop, rather than the abrasive noise rock of this year's Tyranny. He then could have built a tour around Strokes hits plus his more-accessible solo material and let everyone in the crowd go home happy. See where this is going?[jump]
Casablancas's hour-long set with his band the Voidz at First Avenue Monday night featured only 11 songs -- nine from Tyranny, one of the weirder songs off his 2009 solo debut Phrazes for the Young ("River of Brakelights"), and a single bone thrown to those who came out hoping to hear their favorite Strokes songs.
If there were fans who bought tickets under the impression that this was anything but a Julian Casablancas + the Voidz concert, the frontman dispelled that notion when introducing "Ize of the World," a deep cut from the Strokes' sprawling 2006 LP First Impressions of Earth: "We're gonna do a little cover song real quick."
Casablancas may have written, sung, and recorded the original version of "Ize of the World," but for Julian Casablancas + the Voidz, it was accurate to call that song a cover. The faithful rendition of its bouncy verses and anthemic chorus stood out distinctly from the tracks off Tyranny, which included the 11-minute "Human Sadness" and the five-songs-in-one "Father Electricity."
Those new songs, long and ambitious as they are, often served as showcases for the other members more than they did Casablancas. While guitarists Jeramy Gritter and Amir Yaghmai, bassist Jacob Bercovici, keyboard player Jeff Kite, and drummer Alex Carapetis wailed away during lengthy instrumental passages, the instrument-less Casablancas would usually turn his back to the audience. As the only person onstage who didn't have the lights shining down on him throughout the night, he literally shied away from the spotlight. A strange move for someone who puts his name in front of his band's on the bill, but we've established that Casablancas isn't one for convention, at least at this point in his career.
That's not to suggest Casablancas came off as withdrawn or uninterested at First Avenue, though. In fact, the show featured much more interaction with the audience than your standard Strokes gig would. Perhaps sensing the crowd's bemusement following the opening trio of songs, the singer said with laughter, "Okey dokey, so those are some songs." After "Where No Eagles Fly," he recounted his band's journey from the previous tour stop of Seattle: "We drove many miles, for many moons, through Montana and North Dakota. I guess they don't have shows there," he joked.[page]
It was a treat to see a musician known for his detached cool able to let loose in a smaller venue. It's also refreshing to see someone who could easily rest on his laurels continue to push the envelope and stand behind his work live, but it's not as if Tyranny is Kid A. At times its songs lack cohesion and, more often, seem to be weird for weird's sake. As such, Monday night's set could have been bolstered by a couple more Phrazes cuts.
The unabashed pop of "11th Dimension" or "Left & Right in the Dark" might have made for some jarring transitions between most of the Tyranny material, but something like "Glass" would've fit nicely alongside songs like the Voidz' "Nintendo Blood." Then again, considering the departure that is his current project, Casablancas might already view those earlier solo works as covers, too.
Speaking of "Nintendo Blood," the highlight of Tyranny was also the highlight of Monday's show. Its groovy, spiky guitar riff built into a frenzy around Casablancas's hushed vocals and the song featured a dominant second-half from drummer Carapetis. It's too bad that the not-quite-sold-out Mainroom felt about 20 percent roomier at that point than it did when the show began, but Casablancas may have said it best when he called his latest music "the new sound that none of the kids are digging these days" before launching into the finale.
Hey, they can't all connect like Is This It. Not that we should ever expect a repeat performance from Julian Casablancas.
Critic's Bias: I'm a pretty big Strokes fan and loved their set at Lollapalooza 2010, short as it was. That show and Phrazes for the Young had my hopes high for Julian + the Voidz' set at Coachella this year, but the new material (Tyranny hadn't come out yet) and the oppressively loud mix scared me away from Julian's new stuff for a while. I was surprised by how much more I enjoyed tonight's show.
Overheard in the Crowd: I asked my soon-to-be cousin, a long-suffering Strokes and Radiohead fan (those bands haven't visited the Twin Cities since 2004 and 1997, respectively) who he thought would grace Minnesota with their presence again first. His response: a defeated "Neither." I sure hope he's wrong.
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