all photos: Joel Didriksen
This show still frustrates me, as I sit here writing this review almost 24 hours after Spoon played the last note of their second encore. But let me start this with a disclaimer:
No matter how it sounds in any part of this review, I enjoyed the show. Baltimore was lucky enough to get the only area engagement other than VA, so I am grateful. I am only disappointed because it failed to assemble all its ingredients into an epic concoction. It’s like having everything ready to make chocolate fudge brownies and just eating half the ingredients individually and the rest in the batter mixing bowl. Still good, but you really should’ve waited to bake them.
I had a serious thing for the White Rabbits going into this show. Their opening set at the Ottobar a few months ago is still one of my top opening band discoveries-in-concert for my entire concert-faring career. But man did their set get screwed over at Sonar. The biggest gripe had to be the sound. The sound guy must have thought it’d be funny to make a smiley face of the equalizer board sliders, because there were almost no mids and an overwhelming amount of bass and highs. This directly lead to an inability for the Rabbits to produce a full sound, no matter how hard they tried. At the start of their set, they seemed to be really just going through the motions…but after a couple songs, Steve Patterson and crew locked in and pounded away. Unfortunately to no avail. Their sound is such that it MUST swell and fill the room, or else the music really has limited capacity to compel listeners. They played a solid set that probably would have been considered inspired if a good sound tech was on hand. But tragically on the last song, vocalist/guitarist Greg Roberts summed up the set by frantically trying to tell the sound guy to up the levels on the keys in the mix, and getting nothing in return.
The Walkmen were up next, and I really can’t say anything because of an old childhood adage. My mother really did always tell me…”If you don’t have anything nice to say…”, well you know the rest. But if you must know, I’ll give you a few of my thoughts. The set was flat, a cycle of lack-of-energy transferring from the band to the audience back to the band. The Walkmen really did seem like they were going through the motions. Hamilton Leithauser’s Dylan-like drawl grew grating and tiresome quickly; he does not have Dylan’s sense of lyrical pacing and effective rhythm. Musically, the band does show promise and they definitely have some solid tracks in their catalog. But Leithauser’s vocal stylings tend to ruin any momentum or interesting musical moments that try to build. And again, the bad sound mix attacks and turned everything into one big mid-less mush and soup. But despite all this, there were still some enjoyable songs in the set that managed to overcome all these problems: “Thinking of a Dream I Had,” “Wake Up” and “The Rat.”
Suspiciously, the sound was relatively fine for Spoon, who had no trouble filling out the room with a lush, decently balanced sound (though there was still an excess of bass in most channels). And surprise surprise, I could actually hear the discrete guitars and strong vocals atop the mix (I really want to know what was going on with sound at this show)!
Spoon proved a perplexing act for me. There is no doubt they deliver a highly-polished, experienced live show; confident and poised without being posturing and pretentious. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Spoon (formed in 1993) are essentially elder-statesmen of the indie movement and genre. Two things that are well-preserved and emphasized in their live show are the versatility of lead singer Britt Daniel’s vocals and the textured sound of their music. They are a precise, finely-tuned music-making machine, easily achieving the playful interweaving of angular guitar work, propulsive drums and some great, punchy live horns that kept that textured sound intact on Friday.
But I found this precision actually sapped some of the energy from their live show. Spoon is just so tight and well trained that their live show came off merely as a flashy and extra-hard-hitting listening session for their recorded material. They played things pretty close to the cuff, with few stylistic flourishes or stray passages not found on an album of some sort.
Spoon played a beastly set nonetheless, with almost 2 hours worth of music including 2 encores They had several segments playing through a bevy of tracks in rapid-fire succession (I counted no less than 4 or 5 songs straight with no breather for one segment of the set). The set-list was a veritable career retrospective, with the list of hits played practically a mile long. This included, but was not limited to, “I Turn My Camera On,” “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” “The Underdog,” “Don’t Make Me A Target.” You get the idea. Highlights of the set were almost anytime horns were featured (particularly “The Underdog”) and Daniel’s Prince-range vocal acrobatics on “I Turn My Camera On.” This was a decent show that could easily have been elevated to great or spectacular with a little more spontaneity and imperfection on Spoon’s part and a strong re-evaluation of the levels for the sound board.