all photos: Dakota Fine
all words: William Alberque
(bonus: AFTERPARTY PHOTOS HERE)
The mood at the 930 Club Saturday night was euphoric. Everyone inside knew they had a golden ticket – entry to a vastly over-sold show on a gorgeous spring night with a stellar lineup. I arrived minutes before Cansei de Ser Sexy took the stage (CSS to non-lusophones) and the room was already packed to the rafters. CSS would do a credible job – better than I expected for a band that I thought of as a one-dimensional electropop band before seeing them live. But Sleigh Bells…well, I know they polarize opinions, and many of my dearest friends hate them, but live, they are nothing short of astonishing. More on that, later.
CSS describe themselves as reggae grunge, and, fittingly, are on Sub Pop in the States. To be fair, no pat genre description could ever fully explain what they sound like live. When they burst onto the stage Saturday night, they stormed in with three guitarists, a bassist and a drummer.
The first song started incredibly rock-ily, with tons of guitar building an unexpectedly glammy backdrop for lead singer Lovefoxxx to stun us with a remarkably unsexy outfit (including a shirt that looked like it had been stolen off a Sunday school teacher from 1974 – gah!). The three girls and two guys that make up the current touring incarnation of the band were all wearing some oddly clown-themed makeup, adding to the surreal nature of the proceedings.
The next song continued the rock and roll theme, and the audience was lapping it up. A group near the front was arms aloft and bouncing, as they cut into yet another rocker. I suppose the years of playing festivals have given CSS an exquisite sense of how to play a crowd.
By starting with so much guitar rock and gradually bringing in the electro, they managed to start the night out with an extremely high level of energy and keep the audience moving. It’s four songs in before they start using the keyboards; but it’s the bass that’s remarkable – strummed and fuzzed-up, it makes a wild buzzing noise that adds an almost garage element to the opening part of the set.
Still, this is CSS, and they can’t play regular rock and roll forever. One of the girls trades her guitar for a keytar, and you just know they’re about to find yet another level of mayhem. Unexpectedly, the band brings out their very own Bez, as a woman in an odd cape comes out to dance, keeping with the clown makeup theme.
The song is “Hit Me Like a Stone,” if my notes are right, and it does indeed have a surprisingly reggae feel to it – a bit two-tone in a cheeky way. Lovefoxxx notes that the next song is the “sexy jam,” and the audience explodes with delight, recognizing “Music Is My Boyfriend” from the opening riff. Lovefoxxx responds by diving into the audience, giving the security team a workout as she vigorously climbs in and over the audience.
Lovefoxxx tells us the next song is about being different and how that’s okay – it’s the synthiest song of the set so far, and she further torques up the audience by stripping off her ugly shirt into a more winning outfit and skimpy jean shorts. I’m won over completely by this point (not just because of the costume change) and the next song just as suddenly loses me.
They dedicate this low-point in the set to themselves – fair enough, because I’m not enjoying it – but they get the audience to clap along. I head downstairs mid-way through for another blue thing and come back upstairs in time to see that we’re of the same mind – tequila shots for the whole band. Lovefoxxx is getting frisky and asks if anyone wants to bend her all night (?). The theatricality has overwhelmed the music by this point – someone comes from off-stage to affix a cape around her shoulders – and CSS kick into a mid-tempo, Blondie-Rapture-ish talker. “Let’s Make Love and Listen to Death from Above” sets the touch-paper alight again and reminds the audience (well, me) why they are so excellent. A final song sees a fresh instance of Lovefoxxx crowd-surfing, and they go off stage triumphant, keeping the audience entertained for the length of their 12-song set.
And so it begins. The anticipation builds, and what seemed like an over-capacity crowd for CSS now has grown to menacing proportions. The crowd is heavily infiltrated by Gold Cup and Derby fans, with an alarming jump in the proportion of seersucker-wearing gentlemen and genteelly-dressed ladies as the night goes on. They stand in stark contrast to the hipsters, who are here in full force. It’s like BYT versus LNS (what ever happened to those guys, anyway?), but everyone was here to dance. During CSS, that was fine, but afterward Sleigh Bells finish, I’m struck at the number of completely ruined outfits – by sprayed drinks, sweat, rips, and dirt from being knocked sideways by this extraordinary show.
Sleigh Bells only have the one album, and it shows – there are only about ten songs in the set tonight. But what a set – it’s perfectly-organized, with well-timed breaks in the pounding tension and gripping drama, and absolutely not an ounce of fat on this taut setlist. The set design is simple – a tower of Marshall amps stacked four and five high, with blinding lights and two mike stands. It’s menacing, threatening, and fills me and some other equipment aficionados with a building sense of dread.
The dread is enhanced by a pre-concert setlist of incredibly shit hair metal from the 80s. The increasingly frattish crowd are lapping this up, and when “Iron Man” comes over the sound system, you could be excused if you thought you were an extra in some surreal remake of Heavy Metal Parking Lot with the cast of Old School passing through.
Then, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller bound onto stage and I cannot hear a word she says over the thundering, stunning noise made by the crowd. They launch immediately into the jaw-dropping sonic wonder that is “Tell ‘em,” which could be titled “Fuck ‘em” for all the delicious energy it pumps out over the packed room.
The beats are so big, the guitar riffs are staggeringly huge – this is the sound of an adrenaline needle piercing the skin – that I think the audience is going to spontaneously combust. It was Lovefoxxx, who was crowd-surfing during the CSS set, but the audience congeals into a mass of waving arms, pumping fists, and upended feet as wave after wave of bodies bounce on top of the audience and forward towards the stage.
The assault is enormous – four or five songs of unremitting intensity. I feel like my lungs are going to burst from the shouting I find issuing forth involuntarily from my throat. And, just like that, they band shifts gears to the gentle, winsome “Rill Rill.” Alexis is a star, with her “SLEIGH (SLAY?)” basketball t-shirt and easy-going grace during this song.
It’s hard to hold onto that image at the same time as my image of her in the first five songs – a phoenix, a dervish, a succubus – draining the audience of their life force from her position on stage. She gets the whole audience waving their arms back and forth to the lovely melodies of this delicious respite from the hell storm that preceded it.
Derek plays his role well, supporting Alexis, backing off as she takes the fore, and attacking when she attacks. In fact, they completely obliterate my memories of a similar dual act that impressed me a few years back – the Kills. They’re like the Kills on speed – the Kills if the Kills actually wrote killer songs and didn’t just scrape by on reputation and a small handful of decent tunes.
The next song is a gorgeous, delicate ethereal number, allowing the crowd to further relax and reset, but it raised a question to me. What are Sleigh Bells? Metal/industrial? Hybrid hip-hop? Scuzzed-out electro deathbeats? I don’t know, but “Infinity Guitars” instantly pegs the audience back into deep red, with fresh outbreaks of slam dancing and crowd surfing. They segue into “A-B Machines,” and if I weren’t saving myself for the afterparty at the W Hotel, I would have macheted my way up front to lose my mind along with the rest of the lunatics.
I had no time to dally – there were free drinks to be had – but I left in awe on two counts.
- First, CSS might actually merit a re-appraisal – they were far better than the one or two-songs-and-out assessment with which I had unfairly written them off.
- Second, Sleigh Bells are an astounding proposition live. I would put them in the same category as Girl Talk – they take everything that’s great about several different genres of music and boil it down to an extraordinary, intense burst of sound. It was the shortest set of any headliner I’ve seen all year, but I treasured every second, and, in truth, didn’t want it to last one second longer.