Stereolab are almost an institution at this point. They have been around for a long time, and have released a lot of records. In fact, Stereolab were on tour for their 12th record. That's a lot of material.
The thing is -- Stereolab's music is instantly identifiable. If one of their songs comes on the radio (or, to use a more contemporary analogy, comes up in the shuffle mode on your MP3 player), it is identifiable within seconds as Stereolab. There is a unique rhythm, as well as a consistent vibe, to all of their work. This ties into the theory i came up with during this concert, as i discussed Stereolab with other people at the show, many of whom i would not have pegged for Stereolab fans. The theory is this: you really only need a few Stereolab albums, and the albums are interchangeable as far as favoritism goes. That is to say, it doesnít matter which one of their records you have or enjoy, it's all good.
This is not the case for some bands. Saying out loud that you are a fan of Come Pick Me Up is going to convince other Superchunk fans that you are a nutcase. Saying that you prefer Heaven or Las Vegas puts you in the "dancer" portion of Cocteau Twins fandom, which differentiates you from their goth fans, their stoner/shoegazer fans, and their ambient fans. In fact, with most bands, there is internal cliquishness as to which record is your favorite, and this can stir up heated debate.
Yet with Stereolab, that doesnít seem to be the case. I am a fan of Dots and Loops, which is my clear favorite of the three Stereolab records i own. I think it is the epitome of the deep grooving sound that they have perfected. At this show i talked with people who instead claimed allegiance to Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Mars Audiac Quintet, and Margerine Eclipse, and we were all able to get along just fine. Try mixing a Come Pick Me Up fan in with other Superchunk fans and there will be violence! So why is it that all Stereolab fans, regardless of album affiliation, can get along?
Something to ponder.
Anyway, before Stereolab played there were two opening acts. The first of these was The Harris Twins, who are Herb and Jason Harris, from The Selmanaires. I can hear a bit of Stereolab's version of the Krautrock groove in some of the early Selmanaires' work, so their opening seemed logical in many respects.
For this performance, the twins sat, one in front of a keyboard, and the other on lap guitar and percussion. (Please donít ask me to say which twin was on which. I can't tell them apart that well.) No one sang, and instead they played a thirty minute set of mellow Krautrock tunes that ebbed and flowed. The music had samples and some looped rhythms, with nice light keyboarding and sparse guitar accentuation.
I was actually pretty impressed. I thought that what they were doing came across remarkably well, and i have to admit that they held my interest for the duration of their set. Good to know that they have something to fall back on if The Selmanaires implode.
After their set, the curtains closed, which is something you rarely see at The Variety Playhouse. About 15 minutes later they re-opened, and the stage had been cleared for Bradford Cox to perform a set of music from his solo record as Atlas Sound. I was very curious to see this performance, as i had really enjoyed the debut Atlas Sound release from earlier in the year. How would Bradford pull this off live?
Well, he stood there with a guitar in front of a table of electronics. He started with a lovely ambient drone, that grew and evolved, at times becoming a snippet of some parts of Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, and sometimes just an organic haze of echoed voice, distorted guitar, and electronic noise. This went on for about 20 minutes, and was utterly lovely, a really beautiful performance.
Bradford Cox -- he's from outer space!
Then Bradford made a mistake on something, and spent some time chatting with the crowd, being self-effacing and charming, as he normally is. It turns out that he had lost the piece of paper that indicated what he had programmed into his various devices, so he was having a hard time finding sequences to play along with.
Bradford Cox plays with his electronics.
By pushing random buttons, he was able to find and perform a few more pieces, eventually stretching his set out to about 40 minutes. And some of these pieces in the second half of the set were pretty good, but he never again captured the magic of the first half of the set. That first half was as if he was in a trance, using his sounds to mesmerize the audience, and when he goofed up and stopped, he was unable to find the trance again. I felt that the first part of his set was simply stunning. One of the best things i have seen all year. The second half of his set was okay, but it was not magical. And after hearing him do that first part, everything else was a let down. It is those moments of magic that are why i like Mr. Cox. He pulls these things off every once in a while, and when he is "on" there is nothing finer anywhere.
I felt that those two performances were a nicely auspicious start to the show. The Variety Playhouse really filled in as we waited for Stereolab. They came on around 10:20, a six-piece band tonight, involving two keyboardists. They started to lay down their powerful groove, and the sound mix tonight really worked to aid that. It was a bass and drum heavy mix, the drummer laying down a really great beat. He was working hard up there.
Stereolab in action.
Over that beat, the keyboards, the guitar, and of course the voice of Laetitia Sadier all soared. They did a version of Three Women, which is arguably their best single in years, and it sounded really great. They keyboard interplay was toe-tappingly catchy.
Sadier adjusts her keyboard, while one of the other Sterolabbers plays a giant harmonica.
(Who knew that Hohner made keybards as well!)
Shortly after that, the bassist broke a string. Who breaks bass strings? This threw the band for a loop, as they struggled to re-string the bass. However, the band recovered and, the beat and groove resurfaced and kept going. They played until 11:30, really getting the crowd going.
Ms. Sadier lets her hair down to delight the crowd.
A very fun evening. Any band that has the kind of longevity that Stereolab has must be doing something right. Tonight, on stage, they showed up how simple it can be to make simple music to dance lightly too. And they showed us how fun it can be. I guess all of their fans get along so well because of the simple fun of their sound. Their whole aesthetic is about just enjoying the moment, and feeling the beat and the melody. So what is there to disagree over?