|Photo by Caroline Creasey|
I encountered a strange and disheartening paradox as I sat in the balcony of Richmond’s National last Tuesday, letting palpable gushes of fuzz wash over me from Tame Impala’s medium-sized amp rig in a haze of wet, flanged heat something like the heavenly twin of the hellish humidity that lay in wait outside the venue’s doors. Just by writing this review, I’m squandering your chances of being quite as blown away by the band as I was. See, I had heard some things about their live show a little bit after the militantly chill Lonerism dropped. Apparently, they were bad. I remember quite specifically the words “worst show I’ve ever seen.” It must have been the gambling rush that took me down to the box office back in April (fuck an online fee) to secure my spot in the crowd of curiously diverse concertgoers. I guess that sexy-swampy production works for everyone.
So you see my predicament. Let’s try and sort this out. If you want to experience the show as if you were a newborn, try and forget what you just read above by focusing on something interesting and exciting, then read only paragraph A below. If you want to be an informed citizen, skip to paragraph B and read to the end. I saw Tame Impala -
A: God, it SUCKED
B: The show was damn good. I set up a whole mental obstacle course for the band which they navigated without a slip, smiling all the way much to the drill sergeant’s chagrin. Surely they couldn’t replicate the album’s studio-born psychedelic density. They did. Okay, well they would have to sacrifice energy and life to do so, focusing on the slow-but-precise effects pedal tap-routine. Wrong again. Kevin Powers’ backing band, presumably picked up just for the tour, as Tame Impala is mostly his DIY brainchild, seemed happier to be up there on stage than the past 6 or so bands I’ve seen. Especially the drummer. Maybe it’s the creeping prevalence of drum machines, I don’t know, but drummers these days seem so sad. Not this guy. He was having a great time. Powers wasn’t even wearing fucking shoes. It’s like they were practicing in the basement or something. Like the greatest band practice in history.
After the first couple numbers, I thought I was finally catching on to their game. They were just going to play the songs as they were on the album, verbatim! It’s all fine and good to be able to do that, but you’re only replicating yourself. That was me in my wise critical voice during the show. Then of course they showed me up. They took sure crowd pleasers, shut them down about 75% of the way through, then built them back up with improvisation and tension to a blasting finale that makes “crowd pleaser” sound much too light but that cannot be described using polite english. Their forte was the stop-start, a technique they have sharpened to art. Pulling the plug on all sound, they pushed the audience from the cabin of a roaring 747, no parachute but who cares, only to smack them a split second later with a beautiful brick of noisy color. They did this a lot, and it never got old.
The surprise hit, for me, was “Elephant,” certainly their best known track. I don’t find the album version that impressive. It’s not bad, just a little out of place. When they turned it into a ten-minute foray, focusing particularly on the head-spinning solo by Powers, who’s as a talented guitarist as he is a songwriter in some ways, I, and everybody else as far as I could tell, wished it would last forever.
Sticking “Be Above It” in the middle of the set was an odd choice that cut the momentum for a second. It was a great opening track, and it would have been great to open a set, but I wasn’t sure how they were going to end it and I’m not sure I remember now. Other than that, the only curiosity I can think of that’s even a close sibling of a criticism holds true for their recorded material as well: they ended the show well, left stage, came back for the encore, and ended the show well again, but it wasn’t explosive. Well, it was, but so was everything. How can you reach catharsis when you’re in a constant state of climax?
But these are the kind of complaints that do nothing but leave room for the band to improve an already excellent live show. With Tame Impala, you get the stadium rock experience at indie rock prices, complete with screams and yelps (I’ve never seen a crowd at the national so riled up. Bras were thrown. Well, one bra. Still, a bra was thrown), the monstrous presence of what feels like stardom, and, of course, a percussive envelope of sound so overwhelming you’ll forget you’re going deaf, or at least be glad this is the last thing you’ll hear.