Last Night: Julian Casablancas at the Regency Ballroom
Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009
The Regency Ballroom
(Not) better than: The Strokes, Little Joy, Albert Hammond, Jr.
It has to be hard, breaking into the 2000s as the symbol of the hipsters overtaking the mainstream, only to fall down to the bottom of the hype heap a decade later. As the frontman for the Strokes, Julian Casablancas has spent much of the the past ten years being the voice of cool--giving a disaffected, slightly distorted, and occasionally humorous delivery of young, privileged New York attitude. But now the Strokes are in a nebulous middle ground, where either the band members don't want to admit that they've broken up, or they're engaging in enough side and solo projects to allow the core act to atrophy on its own. (This recent article on Casablancas in the New York Times doesn't make it seem like there's been any love lost between the guys).
While the Stokes lose steam as a whole, Casablancas is late in finding his post-rock star music career. Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. and drummer Fabrizio Moretti released some great indie pop in the last couple years, the former under his own name and the latter with Little Joy. Last night, we finally heard the future for Casablancas if his original act doesn't get back together. It was the sound of too many instruments, going too many different directions, far too loudly, all at once. Any witticisms Casablancas was imparting in the lyrics were buried in a mess of emo-prog-synth pop so poorly arranged it made you wonder how much this band had even practiced together. It was a depressing scene for someone whose face once graced the cover of many a music mag--no matter how loudly all the females in the undersold venue were screaming.
Casablancas has gone from stripping New York rock 'n' roll back to its jangling basics on the Strokes' debut to blowing out all subtlety on his solo debut, Phrazes for the Young. There were between six and seven musicians on stage with him at all times last night, and the number swelled when the horn section joined the fray. Between them, the backing band of doubled up keyboards, percussion, and guitars was heaping up Phrazes' mishmash of tempos and styles. The lead guitarist really made you wince, cheesing out on hair metal/Joe Satriani-style solos that turned the sound extremely garish a couple different times. The lighting was equally over the top, flashing strobes of white and pink shining around Casablancas like the band had been diverted last minute from an arena gig to this two-story venue only half full on the bottom floor.
Ironically, the frontman was best without all the excess. He announced the Strokes' "I'll Try Anything Once" by saying with a laugh, "I have a cover song for you." He then performed the hit accompanied only by his keyboardist, a simple white spotlight bringing the set back to earth as he sang the lines, "There is a time when we all fail/some people take it pretty well/some take it all out on themselves/some they just take it out on friends."
It wasn't just those words that made Casablancas seem humble, it was the entire performance. His banter between songs was awkward, but endearingly so. He'd thank the crowd for coming out on a Tuesday, or joke about the security guards shining flashlights on the stoners on the crowd, with a shyness you wouldn't expect during a Strokes show. When he forgot the words to "I'll Try Anything Once," or was losing momentum as he ran out of solo material, Casablancas was as candid with the crowd as if we were just sitting in on a rehearsal.
The problem, though, was that this wasn't a rehearsal. This was a $33 show, where Casablancas only played for 30 minutes before leaving the stage for the encore part of the night. The concert that started around ten after 9 was wrapped up by 10. But then again, musically, that was plenty of time to see that left to his own devices, Casablancas tries too many different tricks all at once. He doesn't have to stick with the minimal downtown swagger his whole career, but his songwriting was much more interesting when the focus was on the smartass vocals and a simple, straightforward hook.