Brooklyn trio Yeasayer are a band I find equal parts exhilirating and frustrating. The songs I love by them (i.e., “2080″, “Tightrope”, “O.N.E.”, etc.) I LOVE. They cut to an emotional core that is augmented by a wide-ranging palette of musical sounds that stretches from the Caribbean to Far Eastern. But there are just as many songs on their first two albums that I am inclined to skip. These songs are more meandering and the lyrics can seem, at times, lazy and uninspired. (i.e., “Rome”, “Strange Reunions”, etc.)
Full disclosure: I have a tendency to wear out songs I like, at the expense of exploring the album as a whole. I am more of a singles person, in that respect. Yeasayer’s most immediate and catchy material is often at the front of their albums. Therefore, I’ve found myself hitting repeat on All Hour Cymbals and Odd Blood without giving the second half of either recording, which I find more tedious, nearly as many plays.
So the question for me going into Yeasayer’s show Saturday night at the House of Blues in New Orleans was how would the songs that I didn’t know as well hold up live? Would they keep my attention? Would they make me dance and nod my head like the tracks I was more familar with?
The answers, if you’re keeping score at home: Fantastic, yes and yes.
Yeasayer, whose live lineup expands to five members including two percussionists, immediately grabbed my attention with “Madder Red”, one of the standouts off Odd Blood, their release from earlier this year. They followed that with “Rome”, one of the songs I normally skip. Chris Keating’s jittery vocals don’t work on the studio version. But live, especially following “Madder Red”, the song made a stronger impression. After two songs, I was already very glad I had chosen seeing Yeasayer over New Orleans’ other big indie show that night, Vampire Weekend and Beach House at the Mahalia Jackson Theater.
When I first saw Yeasayer at the Spanish Moon in Baton Rouge, following the release of All Hour Cymbals, Keating was all over the place on stage. He had an exaggerated head tic that screamed an extreme case of tourette’s or a drug habit or both. His strange movements were disorienting and took attention away from the band’s sound. Thankfully, he seems to have gotten whatever was going on under control. He and fellow vocalist Anand Wilder both acquitted themselves well Saturday. Keating is more of a showman. Wilder is content to stand to the side of the stage. They each sang well, which is not always the case when musicians translate their recordings to a live setting.
Back to the show: Yeasayer opted for more uptempo, dancey numbers in this set, which was in retrospect a wise move. An obvious exception was “Tightrope”, one of their best songs and one of the standouts on last year’s Dark Was The Night compilation. They played it fourth, which was interesting, because the song is something of a victory lap in their repertoire. The crowd responded with great enthusiasm to the song. I hollered like a little school girl. No shame.
Yeasayer, as uneven as they are at times, is capable of poignant moments when one least expects it. Take “Red Cave”, for instance. I won’t say the song slowed the band’s momentum, but it wasn’t as arresting as its predecessors for the first three-plus minutes. The song’s refrain, a simple chant featuring Keating’s reflections on being loved and loving others in return, closed it in riveting, campfire sing-along fashion, however.
Also impressive, among the songs I don’t normally care for, was the Odd Blood jam “Mondegreen”, with its insistent hand-clapping, sweaty Keating vocals and oh yeah … did I mention Keating’s Pentecostal fervor in his delivery? He practically worked the crowd into a frenzy, sing/shouting about he and his baby making love to the morning light. Then again, the near-capacity crowd was in a giddy state throughout the band’s set. It was the best crowd I’ve seen at a show in New Orleans in quite some time.
Quick aside: Keating and Co. definitely would not be considered a chatty band on-stage. But Keating seemed generally happy to be in New Orleans, per his comments during the show. He also was funny and self-effacing, when talking about the financially poor lives of musicians and a woman’s shoe worth several hundred dollars that he had found on stage.
This show would have rated very good for me, even if Yeasayer would have pulled the plug after nine songs. The final four songs, including two encore songs, made it a great and memorable performance, however.
I’d dare say few albums released this year have two songs as strong as “O.N.E.” and “Ambling Alp”. To hear them back-to-back was nothing short of an eargasm. (sorry, if this term conjures up nasty images. ha) In particular, “Ambling Alp” made me want to jump so high my head hit the ceiling — impossible, given the fact the House of Blues is a two-story building and I am incapable of jumping more than six inches off the ground.
If I didn’t suffer hearing damage from the music, I definitely did so from the crowd’s wall of noise pleadings for an encore. Yeasayer, of course, obliged, leading the crowd to calm its hysterics, only slightly.
The first song of the encore was “The Children”, a track that has grown on me a lot, with its muffled, warped vocals and industrial drum beat. The lurching beat provided an interesting departure from the dance-heavy set, as did Keating’s effects-laden vocals. I like how this song was saved for the encore, almost as a way of giving it the attention it deserved.
The statement about saving “The Children” for the encore could also be said for “2080″, the set’s closer and arguably Yeasayer’s best and most recognizable song to date. For as long as Yeasayer exists and is playing shows, this song will be one people come out to hear. It captures the anxiety of living in the 21st century so well, not to mention the need to enjoy the present, that it is both cathartic and uplifting in a live setting, almost like a revival hymn for the poor, downtrodden and anxiety-ridden.
That’s not to say anybody left Yeasayer’s show poorer in spirit or downtrodden. They gave me a buzz that had nothing to do with alcohol. Seeing them Saturday felt like spending the evening with a long-time friend who I hadn’t seen in a while; it felt familiar yet new and exciting. Maybe, just maybe, it is now time to get more familiar with the Yeasayer songs I have so long overlooked.
Wait For The Summer