Monday, September 1, 2014

Spoon Concert Review

State Theatre, Ithaca, N.Y.
August 29, 2014

Is there a better live band than Spoon? If you attend concerts often, you likely have seen shows as great as theirs; for me, TV on the Radio at this year’s Governors Ball and The National at State Theatre last May come to mind. These bands, and very few others, are the best of the best, having hit a peak of skill, presence and professionalism in their performances that defies even the most hairsplitting criticism. If you were one of the many buzzing students, locals or out-of-towners packed into the State Friday night, you’d agree that Spoon, brought here by Dan Smalls Presents, treated Ithaca to a couple of perfect hours of spirited music that permitted only one response, and that is love.

This warm, communal feeling settled over the crowd once the opener, Eric Harvey, walked on stage. Harvey, Spoon’s keyboard player and a multi-instrumentalist in his own right, hails from the region and recruited some of Ithaca’s most talented musicians to join him for a varied, though consistently beautiful 45-minute performance. “Varnishing Day” — a shimmering acoustic ballad with the refrain, “Better hold your head up high” — showcased Ithaca cellist Hank Roberts, who dialed the song down to a hushed whisper and then crescendoed for a stirring finish.

During a cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” which featured Mary Lorson on harmonies, Harvey forgot to retune his guitar and said of the slip, “[This is] just a coffee shop gig, for a forgiving audience.” His low-key, forthright music fosters that kind of intimate atmosphere, and indeed the whoops and applause from the crowd assured him this was a night for building up, not breaking down. Rock-oriented instrumentalists closed Harvey’s set with a few basic, effective numbers, one of which ended with a ridiculous keyboard solo by Mike Stark. The local revue spirit of Eric Harvey’s group made it the rare opener that was impossible to ignore, and even rarer, one of which to feel proud.

A short 30 minutes and drastic stage redressing later, guitarist Alex Fischel, drummer Jim Eno, bassist Rob Pope, Harvey and Spoon mastermind Britt Daniel sent the orchestra audience out of their seats and rushing toward the stage as they launched into “They Want My Soul,” the title track off their excellent new album. Daniel, Fischel and Eno wore all black while the rest beamed in all white, a simple color dichotomy that complemented the simplicity of the stage arrangement (just a few tall, white fabric walls) and the dazzling array of lighting set-ups. Some songs rolled by in near darkness, like the second, “Rent I Pay,” where blue spotlights threw Daniel’s spindly shadow onto the surrounding walls. Others went all out with strobes or a spinning disco pyramid (like the ball, but a pyramid), while a few songs illuminated a specific mood, such as “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” with its fitting blood red colors.

Daniel announced early on that this was the first show of their tour, which is an honor that sometimes comes with taxing handicaps, especially in an insular town like ours. There was no dress rehearsal throat-clearing Friday night — just a spectacular, undeniably complicated production fastened to the ground by Spoon’s confidence and likability. “Confident” and “likable” could also be used to describe the most naïve of mainstream rock bands, but Spoon brings too much carnal energy to the stage to be written off as some fleeting confection. The locked-in rhythm guitar of “Who Makes Your Money” or foot-tapping bass of “I Turn My Camera On” belies Fischel’s spontaneous guitar freak-outs and Daniel’s ronin wanderings about the stage. The band fields nothing but pleasure through its individual elements, but taken together, it swerves through a show that is surprising, atomic, unhinged.

If there is a simple way to explain this quality of Spoon’s art, it is this: Britt Daniel is cooler than you. His sandpaper voice must be one of the most indestructible instruments in the business. He sounds like John Lennon did in “Twist and Shout,” except Lennon could only log one (amazing) take before going hoarse and somehow Daniel just stands firm at that precipice, unchanged, throughout a two-hour set.

He also harbors a more punkish, experimental sensibility than his band’s popularity may imply. At the end of “Inside Out,” a recent cut, he milked a minute of Flaming Lips-esque ambience through spacey keyboards, and at the close of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored,” he did something similar with raw guitar feedback, manipulating it while on his knees. This was not one of those play, finish, “1-2-3-4!” play again concerts, for Spoon engineered a most entrancing flow.

A brickish thud and a sound engineer’s muffled cries were heard (OK: probably, regarding the second item) when Daniel dropped his mic so that he could fetch a beer during the overplayed “The Way We Get By,” the third song of the encore. Suddenly, those much-copied piano chords did not sound so twee; Daniel somehow found an edge to that one. He pulled a Bob Dylan when it came time for the band’s biggest hit, “The Underdog,” by improvising new rhythms and lagging behind the audience’s enthusiastic downbeat claps. Old becomes new yet again.

These antics were all playful, for Daniel was — and I imagine thoroughly is — not the least bit contemptuous. He thanked his crew, of all moves. The most charming moments of the evening came whenever Daniel acknowledged the demonstrably excited man flailing about just below his microphone stand. Instead of ignoring or avoiding him, Daniel, in his typically inclusive way, sang to him on his knees, let him snap a picture and, after the man briefly disappeared at the start of the encore, heralded his return to the front row. He turned what could have been a visible distraction (the guy enjoyed shaking his fist like it was a maraca, which is, like, mesmerizing) into part of the show, part of the Spoon family.

Near the end, Pope announced, “This is the only time we’ve seen a theater crowd standing the whole time.” Who knows if that is actually true, but the unceasing gratitude, heard not only through whistles and applause but actually seen through an absence of smartphone screens, camera flashes and crowd disturbances, grew out of the preternatural brilliance of Spoon’s performance. It was a concert good enough to bring the audience, like Daniel, to its knees; but then again, we didn’t because we’d be missing the show.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here

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