It’s tough not to let one’s own experience of a concert
muddy the objective review process, so I’ll just be upfront about the fact that
I had a lousy time watching The Strokes on Thursday. A free show as part of the
SXSW music conference, there were about 15,000 people crowded into Auditorium
Shores in Austin, and another 5,000 who couldn’t get in, pressed against the
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The organizers apparently didn’t anticipate that so many
people would be interested in watching a band whose sound basically defined the
previous decade, playing together again after five years of near silence.
I had a photo pass, which meant that I was theoretically
going to be allowed to go in the five-foot valley between the stage and the
first row for the first three songs, to snap pictures of the band. Since
Thursday night was one of the first Strokes shows in their comeback effort,
there were many other photographers there too. We lined up along the right side
of the stage as Twin Shadow concluded a set that was very precise in its
updated interpretation of 1980s new wave sound. But what I could gather from
the intermittent chants of “Strokes, Strokes, Strokes,” the crowd didn’t seem
to be enjoying it as much as I did.
A woman danced on a platform a little below the stage and
was communicating in sign language, and interpreting the lyrics that George
Lewis Jr. sang. There was a pocket of about 20 people in a spacious barricaded
area in front of the stage watching her signing and watching the band.
After Twin Shadow, one of the organizers opened the gate to
this area, checked the photo badges of the photographers who were lined up, and
herded us into the cordoned-off section to share with the deaf spectators.
Watching them silently conversing in sign language was too intriguing to turn
away from, but I tried not to stare. They ranged in age and background and all
appeared to know each other well.
The person coordinating the photographers realized that we
couldn’t all fit in the area immediately in front of the stage, so he proposed
we divide into three groups, with each group getting one song. I opted to be in
the third group so I could watch as much of the concert as possible from such a
close vantage point.
As the band opened with “What Ever Happened,” from their
second album, “Room on Fire,” the crowd erupted, and the area that previously
held photographers and the hearing impaired was swarmed with fans who had no
idea that this was supposed to be an exclusive zone. The deaf people I saw
appeared to be very confused, as within 20 seconds, a goofy teenage boy was
being passed around the top of the crowd and accidentally kicking a few of them
in the head. The situation was so beyond the control of the organizers that
they decided not to let the photographers in the second and third heat into the
area just in front of the stage, which caused a lot of people with very
expensive equipment to be very angry and unable to do their job. Luckily, my
main purpose at SXSW is as a writer, with any winning photos I shoot as a
secondary bonus. There would be no secondary bonus tonight though. The pictures
I shot of the band were coming out way too fuzzy to post here.
Upon being disgusted by the invasion upon the deaf people, I
wanted to head to an area where it wasn’t so dense that I had to bend my limbs
like dinosaur arms. Meanwhile onstage, the band sounded great, but Casablancas
was flubbing lines, which intensified said disgust.
As I wended my way through the crowd I happened upon a group
of five girls, who gave me the go-ahead to cross their blanket to get to where
I was going. As I thought to myself, “Gee, that was nice of them,” I felt two
hands on my back, shoving me out of the way, not unlike that last little push
that the conveyor belt gives you at the carwash.
I turned around, and addressed the girls.
“Who pushed me?”
“Oh, did somebody push you?” said one in a teasing
“Yeah, did you push me?”
“Oh, did I push you?” she sang in the same whiny older
I quickly considered my options, and when I thought of
pushing her back I realized how embarrassing it would be to answer the question
of “How was SXSW?” with a response like, “Well, I got arrested for assaulting a
I surveyed my opponent. The girl happened to be overweight,
so I thought about playing the “fatso” card and really hurting her with the
insult that is possibly at the root of an insecurity that would cause a
15-year-old girl to push an adult to impress her friends.
That option was too mean, I concluded. But maybe in the laws
of karma it would even out because of my sympathy for the deaf people.
Actually, probably not. My sympathy for the deaf people wasn’t enough, because
it’s not like I had been able to do anything to give those people their space
back. What was I going to do anyway? Go around to every space invader and yell
above the music, “Excuse me! I know you just want to see The Strokes, and you
don’t realize that all of these people in this area are hearing impaired and
there’s a reason that they’ve been given this space, and that’s because it’s a
safety issue, so could you please get on the other side of that waist-high
barricade? Thank you very much, now I’ll have to tell your friend who is
crowd-surfing the same thing I just told you.”
So here I was in a stand-off, looking a fat teenage girl in
the eye, aghast that she had such little respect for an elder. I shook my head
at her and said, “You know what? You suck!”
As I walked away, I heard her say, “You suck too, bitch!” in
that same teasing melody.
I eventually found a place where I could watch, listen and
have a little space, and hope that the music that I had held dear to me for a
decade would soothe the subtle sting of a teenage girl telling me that I suck
and calling me a bitch.
But if the crowd was a mess, so was the action onstage.
Within the first 40 minutes of the show The Strokes had only played one track
from their “Angles” album, which comes out next Tuesday. That song, “Under
Cover of Darkness” has a really cool guitarmony breakdown, and it easily fits
into Strokes canon, but it’s a little bit of a rip-off of “This Charming Man”
by The Smiths. The next new song they played, “You’re So Right,” is a very
middling song, so it made sense to put it right in the middle of the set.
Of the other new material in the set, “Taken for a Fool” is
a real standout, with a chorus as strong as anything from the band’s classic
The rest of the set felt disimpassioned, but I should note
that the band were in great form, playing like they never stopped. Casablancas,
on the other hand, seemed like he hasn’t sang these older songs since he
recorded them. He was painfully off key on “Hard to Explain,” during the band’s
encore, and he seemed slightly apologetic for his mistakes, responding to a fan
in front who was yelling something, “I’m so glad you said, ‘that was awesome,’
and didn’t request a song we weren’t ready to play.”
And as the band finished with “Last Night” and fireworks
from the lake behind them rocketed into the sky it felt a little unwarranted
and embarrassing. Not unlike the anger a journalist in his 30s would feel after
getting pushed by a teenage girl.