The Strokes Closed Out Shaky Knees With A Sloppy But Transcendent Hit Parade
Before all concert lovers struggled with the absence of live music during the pandemic, there was plain old FOMO. And in that bizarre phase of 2020 before the world shut down, one of the last live bands giving me FOMO was the Strokes. At the time, I didn’t know that The New Abnormal, their first album in seven years, would be such a fan favorite. All I knew was that one of the formative bands of my teenage years was finally playing shows again, starting with what looked like a spectacular New Year’s Eve set in Brooklyn featuring ample classics and promising new material. The Strokes’ scheduled concert itinerary before COVID was not exactly robust, more a series of special engagements than a full-fledged tour — the Strokes, with their stratified lives and famously tenuous intra-band relations, are no longer the type of act that hits the road for long stretches — but the scarcity made their gigs all the more enticing. And then concerts by the Strokes and everyone else got a lot more scarce.
So almost two years later, now that live music is back up and running, the band’s presence on the lineup of a festival I’d be attending was an instance of supreme wish fulfillment. Sunday night, the Strokes headlined the final night of Shaky Knees at Atlanta’s Central Park. It had been an entertaining weekend up to that point, in part due to fresh faces (the endlessly charismatic Joy Oladokun and Quinton Brock, the kinetic teenagers Geese) and newly minted indie royalty (Bartees Strange, Phoebe Bridgers, Black Midi, and Idles to name a few). But equally or more so, the weekend was carried by fiery sets from old favorites like Cloud Nothings, Modest Mouse, St. Vincent, Garbage, and Run The Jewels, whose Killer Mike could not have been more pleased to be playing in front of his hometown crowd. Still, for me, everything played like a three-day opening act for Julian, Albert, Fabrizio, Nikolai, and Nick.
So it was only a tiny bit painful when they took the stage 18 minutes late, robbing us of four to five potential setlist additions — and any semblance of disappointment evaporated when they opened with all-time banger “Hard To Explain.” Even (especially?) with Julian Casablancas singing the first verse and chorus through some wacky vocal effect that pitched up his voice into Donald Duck range. Think of it as a twisted update on their controversial lo-fi vocal sound of old? Or don’t think at all, and just let the mechanistic tidal wave crash into you.
The early vocal fuckery was hardly the only special effect on a stage featuring a gigantic video pyramid-staircase situation that doubled as a drum riser, a setup befitting a far proggier band (like, say, the Voidz). But Casablancas ensured this set would be more punk than prog thanks to a lackadaisical affect that sometimes tipped over into sloppiness. He hit a few bum notes. He forgot some lyrics, even stopping “Ode To The Mets” a few seconds in because he realized he didn’t know the words. (He also introduced it as “Ode To The Dodgers” in a jab at the Atlanta Braves, who advanced to the World Series by eliminating Los Angeles this weekend. “Congratulations!” he told the crowd. “Racist chant unnecessary, but congratulations.”) Performance aside, Casablancas often seemed contemptuous of the whole ordeal: mercilessly ribbing Albert Hammond Jr. at every opportunity; sardonically telling us to blame COVID “if anything goes wrong”; starting the vocals on “Is This It” and “12:51” immediately rather than letting the intros play out; beginning the encore by announcing, “I don’t know if we’re worthy of that.”
But they were worthy. Come on. The songs are too good — new ones like the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head propulsion unit “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus” and the hypnotic new wave jam “The Adults Are Talking,” mid-career gems like “You Only Live Once” and “Heart In A Cage,” oldies like “Take It Or Leave It” and “Automatic Stop,” even much-maligned oddities like “Juicebox” in all its discordant, chaotic glory. The guitar parts are too sick — slicing and dicing and interlocking in spectacular fashion, machinelike until suddenly they’re morphing into ripping solos. The mystique is too powerful — that sense that these five people become something greater than the sum of their parts when they come together, even (especially?) with a stumble here or there. I didn’t even notice that they’d entirely skipped over Angles and Comedown Machine (though “One Way Trigger” was apparently on the printed setlist) because they were throwing so much heat. It’s no wonder this group set off a retro rock big bang; who wouldn’t want to emulate music this intoxicating?
Maybe people who are less emotionally invested in these guys might have offered a sharper critique — perhaps a zinger related to them playing “Not The Same Anymore” live for the first time last night — but the band would have to be far messier than this to turn me off. On some “tell me you graduated high school in 2002 without telling me you graduated high school in 2002” shit, I am inclined to see the best in this band. And when they’re burning through classics like “New York City Cops” and “Someday” and “Reptilia” in the first half of the set, it is very easy to see the best in them. Catch them live whenever you get the chance, before Casablancas decides he can’t be bothered anymore.
“Hard to Explain”
“Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus”
“New York City Cops”
“The Adults Are Talking”
“Is This It”
“You Only Live Once”
“Heart in a Cage”
“Take It Or Leave It”
“Not The Same Anymore”