May 01, 2004

Hangin' With The Experts

So April 30th finally arrived, and April 30th meant the Stereolab concert at the Belly Up in Solana Beach.

I called the place around 6pm to get details on showtimes and lines. A woman answered the phone.

"Well," she said, "doors open at 8:15, and so if you want a table you need to be there when the doors open."

"What time will the line form before the doors open?"

"Well, there's nobody out there right now, but there are usually clusters of . . . experts . . . who start arriving probably a half an hour before then."

"Experts!" Not fans, not groupies, but experts. Of course! It made so much sense. When we'd driven up to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, to see The High Llamas at the Troubadour, we got in line early, and now that I look back on it, yes, the people in line were experts. They knew the title of every song, they'd seen the band play many times, they could recount details both amazing and mundane. That was our first time seeing The High Llamas live, and this was our first time seeing Stereolab live.

It turns out that a lot of Stereolab "experts" smoke. A lot. Seemed like everyone in front and everyone behind was chainsmoking for the half-hour before the doors opened. Didn't they hear the news?

While I stood there breathing in all the smoke, I thought, hmm, too bad there isn't a separate line for smokers here: perhaps a cordoned-off, plexiglass-enclosed corridor along the sidewalk, where smokers can smoke to their hearts' content as long as they stay inside. Their tickets would cost more, of course, for the fees to run the ventilation and filtration systems that get rid of all that smoke.

A band named Mice Parade opened for Stereolab. "It's a silly name," one bandmember announced during a break between songs, "but there it is." Mice Parade came across to me as a jam band: post-melody, post-chords, very repetitive, reminiscent of Philip Glass doing Stereolab covers, on an off night. Highly percussive, with the vibraphone player ridiculously front and center stage, looming over everyone else (the two guitarists sitting in chairs, and the female vocalist in the vibe-player's shadow most of the evening). This was one of those bands that lacked a bass guitarist, and that plus the generally shrill mix coming out of the loudspeakers made their tunes kind of harsh to listen to. Oddly, even when the female vocalist took lead duty singing, her voice was kept low in the mix, making it nearly inaudible. Another first for a warm-up act, at least in my experience: a long, drawn-out drum solo. They really didn't have much to offer. I wasn't impressed with Mice Parade.

Stereolab were fantastic. I wish they would've played more songs! It was great to hear them live. Many of the seven players switched between different instruments for different songs, often playing multiple instruments at the same time (horn and keyboards!). The lead singer, Laetitia Sadier, often played a trombone or a Moog synthesizer in addition to her vocals.

My only complaint with Stereolab's wonderful performance was the same complaint I continue to hold for Coldplay: one of the most essential ingredients to both bands' songs is the backing vocals. Yet, live, neither band apparently offers any backing support to the lead singer, who's out there all alone. I know, in Stereolab's case, they lost their second female vocalist, Mary Hansen, when she died in an accident in late 2002. But still: Stereolab's music is so much richer with rich multiple layers of vocals; without it, it's just not the same.

Brian Wilson understands this, and his touring act is rich with accompanying vocals (can you imagine one lone singer trying to do justice to Beach Boys songs?). Stereolab's music is no different: the vocals complete the tunes. I wish they'd have had a couple of background singers onstage to fill out the sound.

One final thing: what is it with bands lately? My statistical sample is tiny (two concerts), but both The High Llamas and Stereolab both barely cracked a smile the whole evening. Is this the result of Southern California being at the end of a long tour that started in the East? I don't know. It would have been nice to see Laetitia and the other performers smile and show they're having as much fun as the audience once in a while. Why else bother performing?

Posted by brian at May 1, 2004 06:29 PM

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