As heavy grey clouds loomed over Echo Beach, threatening to turn sand into mud and Canada Day fireworks non-existent, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ entrance on-stage marked the sudden cessation of spittle only moments prior. This good omen signaled the 90 minutes to come, as the New York art rock trio (with touring member, David Pajo, as second guitarist) treated the audience of 2,600 to one of the most energetic and captivating performances to come through the city in a long while.
The exuberance of the group is due in large part to frontwoman Karen O, whose skipping, dancing, gyrating, and giggling could make even the most reserved smile and move their feet (and this has been the case for years, see our review of their show at Kool Haus in 2009). Her playful sexuality mixed with an aura of badass-bitch recalls an era where Deborah Harry, Siouxsie Sioux, and Joan Jett ruled the stage. It’s this energy, along with drummer Brian Chase’s wide grins and drumstick flair, and stoic guitarist Nick Zinner’s occasional audience interactions with a digital camera, which should have caused a frenzy with the Toronto crowd. Should have.
And herein lies one of the central issues with the concert: the discouraging lack of energy from the audience. Only when some of the band’s most dance-able (and radio-friendly) songs were played—‘Zero’, ‘Heads Will Roll’, ‘Turn Into’ of note—did those around me seem to perk up, shifting from a bobbing of the head to a wiggling of the shoulders. Tellingly, upon the group’s rendition of ‘Subway’—arguably the most slow-tempoed song of the night—, audience members became restless, ignoring the poignancy and startling intimacy between O and Pajo, instead breaking out into chatter for most of the song’s duration. No better was the rapidity with which many audience members left after the band’s first encore (which included ‘Cheated Hearts’ followed by the sexually-charged ‘Tick’), only to tentatively return upon realizing there was still a second encore (‘Date with the Night’, disputably their song most indebted to the New York punk scene) to come.
This fault lies outside the realm of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ actual performance which was undoubtedly robust, engaging, and lively. Confetti shot out of cannons, Chase twirled his drumsticks, and O shoved her microphone down her pants, back out through a hole in the crotch, and into her mouth, the latter a trademark action of their shows for many years, now. Dressed in a hybrid outfit of glam (white sequined pants) and punk (a leather coat with ‘KO’ studded on the back), O commandeered the stage, and even off- as she beckoned front-row audience members to sing along to the bridge of ‘Cheated Hearts’. The setlist also proved impressive, the band offering five tracks from their 2013 release, Mosquito, combined with a nearly equal amount of material from their previous three albums. While most of their most well-known singles were played (‘Maps’, ‘Zero’, ‘Heads Will Roll’, ‘Gold Lion’ among them), the Yeahs offered up lesser-known choices (‘Black Tongue’, ‘Down Boy’, and even Mosquito’s hidden track) to balance the setlist with equal amounts of anticipation and surprise.
Sonically, the group further proved to be on point a decade on from their first LP release, A Fever to Tell, with Chase’s drums tuned to heighten the bass in particular, thus becoming just as much of a driving force as O’s show(wo)manship. In the night’s only other flaw, the sound mixing seemed a bit off at times, specifically during moments when O’s vocals were barely audible over Zinner’s crunching riffs or Chase’s booming percussion. The issue was not consistent from song-to-song, but popped up enough to become noticeable.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have long been known for their engaging, dynamic performances, the disparate personalities of the trio playing off one another in a manner that exudes pure fun. Outside of the fairly minor crowd and technical issues, the group proved to still exude confidence and, most significantly, lots of energy, even as they age into their mid-to-late thirties. It is this ageless quality of the core members which is perhaps the most impressive aspect of a group which continues to remain on the border between mainstream and the periphery of music culture. Let’s hope this longevity will grant us more tours in the future; Karen, meet Deborah Harry.
Just for fun, here’s a video of them performing “Maps” at that Kool Haus gig many years ago: