all words: William Alberque
all photos: Katherine Gaines
TV on the Radio are having quite a year. First, they wrap up their fourth album (fifth if you count the charmingly bizarre OK Calculator), Nine Types of Light and prepare for the inevitable cavalcade of promotional events and tour. Then, In March, bassist Gerard Smith is diagnosed with cancer. Devastating news at the best of times, but, according to the website, Smith is receiving “excellent medical care” with “dramatic results…combine that with Gerard’s legendarily willful disposition and it might just be cancer that has the problem.” Good, it’s about time someone kicked cancer’s fucking ass. Not to be glib, but, on with the show.
TVOTR have some family roots in the Baltimore area, so it’s only natural that personal friends and Baltimore fixtures Celebration would open for them here. TVOTR helped get Celebration (and, I suspect, Cass McCombs) onto legendary British art label 4ad – and it made a good deal of sense at the time. Still, I have enough of a chip on my shoulder to resent it when bands skip DC for Baltimore (DO BOTH!), and I’ve never been in love with the venue, Ram’s Head Live. It has some charms, but, man is it a pain to get to from DC on a Sunday night – and, by glancing at the schedule, doesn’t normally get bands like this (WTF, A Place to Bury Strangers and the Big Pink? The Black Cat’s not good enough for ya?).
Celebration are immensely talented, creative, twisted, and anti-commercial in the best way. Some have compared them to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but I would say that the only comparison comes from the distinct vocals of Katrina Ford and Karen O.
Musically, Y3 stopped the arty experimentation that made them kindred and went for the big pop brass ring, while Celebration have maintained a skeptical distance from the idea of record sales justifying the music. In that sense, they’re the even weirder cousins of Blonde Redhead, if that’s possible
Live, they are a wonder, with layers of percussion and rhythm building on and providing a beautiful backdrop for the Ford’s desperate vocals. It’s a hometown crowd, so they’re safe, but you can imagine some heads being scratched on, say, a foreign tour. Much of the sold-out crowd is here for TVOTR, and the kaleidoscopic vision of Celebration passes many of the kids by, but I don’t mind. Still, I’m a bit in knots thinking about TVOTR and what to expect.
My first experience seeing TVOTR was in a small warehouse party, with the excellent Apollo Heights opening. Would they match that level of dazzling intensity? Would the vast open spaces of Ram’s Head swallow the show and leave things distant and cold? It’s a Camden Yards ambience, with a big main room, sound booth tucked into the back, somehow making the space seem both large and cramped.
To the left, under a lower ceiling, is an excellent bar and food counter. Everywhere, there are TV screens, so even if your view is blocked by the too-frequent enormous pillars that mar the sight lines, you can still watch the stage on television (which adds a surreal sense of unreality to proceedings, really). And, they have bathroom attendants, which adds to the surreal feeling of the evening.
I’m eager to hear the new material – I have only listened to “Will Do” from the new record, and it didn’t grab me. I loved the first, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, but Return to Cookie Mountain stands as an unassailable peak of perfection for any band, to me (Province, A Method, ect.). Fortunately, within moments of them taking the stage, all doubt is blown away. Besides a replacement bassist, they’ve added a trombone player to the live setup, and the opening ballad from Nine Types of Light, “Killer Crane,” is luminous. Tunde is in incredible form, with gentle vocals leading us by the hand through a languid, beautiful song, building in strength before descending with gentle, cooing “oohs” letting us down softly.
“Young Liars” follows, and a sound problem has the guitars disappearing frustratingly out of the mix. Three-quarters through, though, the problem stops, and Dave Sitek’s caterwauling wall of feedback lifts the song. I have always thought TVOTR deliberately underplayed the noise on record so that the wallop of their live performance would make a bigger impact. It does. “The Wrong Way” is next, with Tunde on keyboards and the trombone going full force, before another new one.
Tunde teases the crowd, saying this is a jumping song, and asking if we can jump and hover during “Caffinated Consciousness.” We just about can. Tunde figuratively catches fire during “Dancing Choose,” spitting vocals with incredible speed and the rhythm section pounding it out, thrashing it out to rapturous applause.
The set is balanced with new and old songs, but a few clunkers – “You” is next, Tunde saying something about expressing yourself, but the song is too mid-tempo and takes a bit of the excitement out of the air. Oddly, it sounds better on record than live. “Blues from Down Here” follows, and “Keep Your Heart,” and I’m starting to hope for something to enliven proceedings. Fortunately, “Province” follows – and it’s hard to describe how awesome this song is. Here, watch the video:
Shattering. Katrina comes on stage to perform “Staring at the Sun,” and I’m just about losing my mind.
The slow-burn, lock-groove intensity of that song is almost too much to take, and when it bursts into the unrelenting sprint of energy towards the end, the crowd is bouncing in unison. “Will Do” follows, with “Repetition,” sliding into almost ska vocals before exploding into unexpected thrash noise towards the end – and a whistled breakdown outro – earning huge applause and shouts of joy from the crowd. No one is leaving.
I know what’s next. It cannot be anything else.
From the opening jangling noise to the galloping drumbeat, to the first attack of the drone guitar, it’s “Wolf Like Me.” Bedlam ensues, with everyone, everywhere in the venue, merchants, bartenders, and punters alike, dancing with mad abandon and hundreds of fists pumped in the air, “HOWLING FOREVER.” Gonna teach you tricks that’ll blow your mind, indeed. There’s another new one in the encore – I think it’s “Forgotten,” followed by the most perfect ending song – the first song by them I ever heard, “Satellite.” They add a ton of noise to it live, it’s almost overwhelmed and overwhelming, but I have had the perfect dosage of music and am ready to try to figure out how to get back to DC.