Before their third song, the single "2080" that set the Yeasayer buzz in motion in 2007, Chris Keating thanked the crowd for buying out the show in advance and apologized to those whose friends could not get in and for not bowing to the petition to get the show moved from Backstage to the main stage upstairs. The band is comfortable in cozy spaces, he explained, isn't used to big rooms. The band still may be new, but they'd better grow up quick.
Probably their catchiest song, "2080" is a perfect example of Yeasayer's blend of indie rock and world music, an almost club-worthy track with Middle Eastern guitars and tribal percussion -- the reason they conjure Brian Eno's work with David Bowie and the Talking Heads. Lending credence to the comparison, Keating's "improvised" little "Take me to the river" chant as the song traveled out to its end immediately brought to mind the Heads' second LP -- the first produced by Eno -- and its cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River." "2080" itself is also a perfect representation of a common theme on the band's debut, "All Hour Cymbals." It expresses dejection over the state of the world we live in but is also a call to arms to make it a better place. And it's a pop song, too -- and a pop band, too -- as witnessed by vocal harmonizing that sounded like the Beach Boys chanting.
One song earlier, on "Wait for the Summer," guitarist Anand Wilder's Eastern tendencies -- and the tribal drums -- first took center stage. In the live setting, Wilder's Eastern ventures, as well as his garage rock and early heavy metal influences, played a bigger part in the music. You couldn't really say the set was ever guitar-centric, but the guitar often stepped further forward live than on record. How this band would attempt to present "All Hour Cymbals" on stage was the most intriguing part of the set. The album is colored with such varied instrumentation, it begged speculation of what would fall out in the live performance. Or would the band bring some friends along to aid the orchestration? That question's easy to answer, though, as Black Cat's Backstage barely has room for a quartet. So, much of the music was looped, stealing some of the organic feel of both the record and of live performance in general. To their credit, the band didn't just play over tracks from the record. They stretched songs, and they needed to. The band really only has 10 songs, and no artist really wants to just play their album and exit.
Another Talking Heads-inspired moment was the intro to "No Need to Worry," which was immediately reminiscent of "Burning Down the House." (Eno may have been out of the picture at that point, but the Heads still carried his influence.) It was the first song that stood apart from the album, heavier on the synth and absolutely epic on stage. Again, on no song did the band play it straight, but this was their first real departure, though the chorus rang clear and true. It was trumped, though, by "Wait for the Wintertime." Its extended synthetic percussion intro sounded like something acid eaters would breakdance to. Eastern flute and guitar abruptly broke that mood only to be broken again with the Sabbath-esque, brooding portent. And the band also demonstrated here that they know where to leave space, as Keating put his index finger against his lips to shush the band and break the wall of sound for a sparse presentation.
But at only seven songs, the set was too short. The band had stretched those seven songs into 45 minutes or so, but more was required. "We only know like four more songs," Keating said, and it's easy to appreciate, again, that they didn't want to simply play the record and go, but a couple of more songs at least -- a cover, maybe, and another from the album -- seemed owed to the audience. Keating said they'd play that last song and leave and come back, then quickly alluded to their come back coming with a return in the spring. Hopefully, they'll be upstairs then. And I'll come back for more, but hopefully it'll be more than seven songs.
The sold out show wasn't due to Yeasayer alone. MGMT drew a good portion of the crowd, witnessed by the several people bouncing about and thrusting their fists in air as each of their songs began. Some MGMT fans didn't stick around for the headliner, leaving welcome elbow room in the crowd when Yeasayer took the stage.
In the long run, MGMT will probably have a bigger following. They aren't as experimental as Yeasayer, and their sound is more radio ready. But that's not to knock the band. They, too, conjure the work of Eno with their rocktronica. At times the band was '80s dance pop. At others, it was Queen-esque glam for its classical structure, its composition and its arena rock ambition. At its best -- and though they didn't do it on every song -- MGMT was able to bring those two worlds together.