I worry about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs sometimes. I’m not saying it’s fair, but I do. I’m also not saying they have gone the way of the NYC Rock Revival (TM) peers the Strokes and aged from era-defining life force to “nostalgia act that sticks around to do the hits for the festival checks.” But there are a few troubling signs I can’t ignore.
It’s been five years since their last album Mosquito, which had some strong songwriting but never really achieved liftoff. They then took a lengthy break after touring ended for that album. That’s both understandable (the incomparable Karen O gave birth two years ago) and par for the course (most of their albums come with a three to four-year gap between them). But after such an extended break, it’s a little worrisome that they returned to tour behind a reissue of their debut Fever To Tell and a documentary, and to play Governors Ball, which at this point will probably continue to book the Strokes in perpetuity like leather-clad Wayne Newtons in Vegas, all so Julian Casablancas can bankroll the weird shit he’d rather be doing.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being unfair and foisting my Strokes issues and my generational malaise that the ’00s indie explosion eventually gave way to a music scene that’s more homogenized than ever onto the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But in their day, this was one of the most exciting bands in the world, one that burned down any venue you saw them in and always proved on-record that “saviors of rock” was too limiting a title for them. I’d hate to see them become another cash-the-checks entity, content to play “Maps” at every bland festival in America while aging hipsters look at each other and remember their PBR-drenched nights of abandon. It just feels like there’s more that this band can and should do.
At their show last night at Governors Ball, the New York trio didn’t assuage my fears that they might be coasting on nostalgia, as their set didn’t feature any new songs. But then, this has never been a band to workshop their new songs live, so I’m not surprised. But the old songs that they did play sounded as amazing as ever, and the band’s chemistry and connection with the audience has someone only gotten stronger over the years. So strong that eventually, I decided to quit worrying and give myself over.
Bounding onstage to “Y Control,” they sounded locked-in and connected, as though not a moment has passed since the time Fever To Tell turned from buzzed-about local darlings to one of the most beloved acts of their generation. They played the hits but they also threw in a few surprises. Guitarist Nick Zinner looked delighted to dive into the complex shifts in “Down Boy,” and drummer Brian Chase was one mile-wide smile the entire time, clearly ecstatic to still be there. By the time they got to Fever deep cut “Pin,” Karen was fully dancing around the stage, making it clear she hasn’t lost a single step during her time away.
As recounted in Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first show was opening for the White Stripes at the Mercury Lounge in 2000, and because life is circular, last night they found themselves playing right before Jack White’s professional but oddly jammy headlining set. There was much Twitter grumbling that sentient neckbeard Post Malone attracted all the kids to his side stage set, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made a convincing argument that they should headline the festival next time around. Hopefully in support of a great new album.
The band has their share of hits, but they know full well the reason they’ll be playing large venues for the duration of their career is because they wrote “Maps,” this century’s finest love song. If you talk to enough artists, you’ll learn that artists often come to loathe their biggest hit, or at least become resentful that they have to play it every night. It that’s the case with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, you sure couldn’t tell, as Karen O dedicated the song to her parents, Brian’s parents and Nick’s parents and the entire city of New York, noting that tonight was a family affair, and then proceeded to sing the thing like she’d just gotten dumped yesterday, heart-broken but determined to hold on, ever utterance of “wait” feeling like it was the only life raft she had left.
She then bounded into the audience for “Cheated Hearts” and took a second to sing the “bigger than the sound” line directly to an elementary school age girl foisted on the shoulders of her cool dad. They weren’t the headliner but they took an encore anyway, ending things with “Date With The Night.” The whiskey-fueled antics chronicled in the song are no doubt well behind everyone (she spit out water, not beer, throughout the set, but she can still rock a leather jacket and swallow the microphone with peerless panache), but before the end, the band paused and she smiled as everyone screamed, knowing full well that she had the audience completely under her control, and could get back to this place anytime she wanted. Then Zinner’s riff kick backed in and everyone danced one more time and I felt silly for ever worrying about them.