For a lot of girls, there is always that one best friend they can count on. The friend who you've had since at least high school, who knows everything about you. The friend you've done really stupid things with; the friend who, even in the midst of a giant storm of annoyances, you automatically called when everything was going wrong; and the one friend (who you aren't fucking) that you can stay up all night with and not get grumpy. So imagine a day right before the absolute beginning of summer that you spend with your best friend, listening to music, interviewing a band, taking photos, dancing, and going on a mini-road trip to Detroit…
The 89X Birthday Bash took place in Detroit in the Fox Theatre Complex. The Fox and the older (though only by three years) State Theatres are the glossy-gold caverns of art and culture which should have disintegrated with the advent of the Great Depression. The glamour which lies within them has a bright, mythical quality, filled with all the ghastly, materialistic thrills of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel (or, for that matter, a biography). While they are often not associated with modern day perceptions of Detroit, these historical and lovely pieces of real estate are enough to make anyone fall in love with the old, dead Detroit – as well as begin to feel stirrings of compassion for the new Detroit slowly beginning to rebuild itself at the dawn of the 21st century. When I learned that Laura and I would be heading to the theatres, I knew that I would at least slightly enjoy myself.
A word of note, for not-so-frequent readers of the Modern Pea Pod: I am usually not one for modern mainstream music. All of my favorite records are either old, sound old, or veer onto the railway tracks of the bizarre. Every once in a while, there'll be a new album which gets me really excited, but those are few and far between. So when I went to the 89X Birthday bash, I at least consoled myself with the fact that I would get the opportunity to finally see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But then things started to change after I received the upcoming record by another group of 89X performers, Love Arcade (out August 8th on East West). While not everything was to my taste or sensibilities, I began to fall in love with their track "Can't Stop" as Laura and I listened to it in the car. "Can't Stop" made both of us feel as if we were 14-years old, and the only thing we had to do all summer was look forward to going to a skating rink dance and eating popsicles. We listened to it at least three times on repeat as we drove all over East Lansing and Okemos, thinking of interview questions and ideas. We even mentally outlined a schedule of which shows to cover. Isn't it interesting how whenever anything is planned, it completely falls apart? But that is the nature of both life and Mapquest.
Mapquest somehow chose the longest and most arbitrary way for us to get to Detroit. Maybe they found a way for us to avoid traffic stops and construction, but no matter what it was, they certainly did not want to give us a chance to check out Rogue Wave that afternoon (which is now my third sabotaged attempt at seeing the Sub Pop darlings). Oh, well. After very little decision-making, Laura brought us over to the Fox Theatre stage to begin our concert-going adventure. Laura, who is much more kind than I am, wrote this about our first experience in that area of the festival:
To start things off, Megan and I ventured into the Fox Theatre to check out Say Anything, a California punk pop band that breathes cutesy surfer boy hardcore; and although over the radio their songs offer a nice chuckle and memories of high school afternoons outside in the parking lot vandalizing people's cars, in concert Say Anything was less than pleasing. In fact, they were annoying.
The band itself wasn't half-bad, but frontman Max Bemis, 21, performed poorly, lacking energy and charisma. Their songs dragged, and the set crawled with forceful vocals and a sluggish candor. The California natives even seemed a bit pompous. But Bemis might be fully aware of his talent's shortcomings – he won't play any songs from the band's previous two albums, presumably because he thinks they're so bad.
See, isn't she so much nicer than I am? Here's what I thought of the whole Say Anything experience:
To appreciate a Say Anything set, you have to be either a fan, or the obnoxious lead singer's relative. While the band in general sounded tight and totally together, I was put off by the singer's attitude. This led to a heated argument between myself and the much more understanding Laura:
Me: Can I pan them for the singer being a total douche?
Laura: I don't think that's fair. Give them a chance.
Me: Oh my God… Listen to him!
Laura: I'm trying to watch the show.
Me: Ugh. I hate him.
Me: They're singing a song about a girl touching herself and trying to make it all deep and shit.
Laura: I've heard this song on the radio. It makes me laugh.
I felt as if Say Anything's set personified a young teenager's need to make growing up less a fact of life and more of an epic romance where everything is heart-rendingly sincere. Yes, I now know that Say Anything's lead singer is bipolar, and it's not entirely fair to instantly dislike the mentally ill. Nor is it fair for me to judge him from my usual stance on emo, since he actually has gone through a ton of shit. It's more of a dislike I take to seeing a large group of middle-class American teenagers, who on average haven't experienced any great pain or sorrow, yet revel in the pain of others. Music such as Say Anything's, though admittedly not of their own accord, encourages a good deal of young adults to think of pain as a great gift which makes you artistic, interesting, and thought-provoking. Pain becomes more than a necessary part of life, but a part of life to be pursued. It's a self-destructive drive that some teens take too far. I'm not saying that emo music causes suicides, but it does encourage a good deal of dramatic stupidity for the high school set.
(Love Arcade saves the day)
A welcome change of pace, however, was Michigan's own Love Arcade, whose set directly followed Say Anything's on the Fox Theatre stage. Love Arcade is a collection of five very down-to-Earth, very funny guys who love music and attention. While one of the (non-subjective) problems of Say Anything's set was that all of the songs often blended together, Love Arcade, both in person and on their forthcoming CD, never treaded towards the monotonous. Love them or hate them, they're hard to forget.
One of the most interesting things about Love Arcade is the effect they have on their fans. Now that I've reached the wise old age of twenty-one, rarely do I see people actually acting excited about music. Indie shows involve a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking, a lot of thick glasses, and a lot of nonchalant arm-crossing. Only once in a while does the band earn furtive whispers, flirty mock threats, and screaming bleach-blonde/dyed-black haired fourteen year old girls. Even before Love Arcade took the stage, a fleet of girls behind me were eyeing the band, calling them by name, and pondering the all-important question, "Does Christian have his angel wings on?"
(Yes, Christian has his angel wings on)
And despite all of the built-up hype, Love Arcade surpassed all expectations. The bassist, Seth (who Laura and I only got to meet for a few fleeting moments), whirled around as if playing bass was less of an activity and more of an addiction. Lead singer Christian and guitarist Thomas leapt and jumped, forcing the photographers in the pit to scuttle and rush around like a pack of tigers fighting over two lone and wily gazelles. The band had a fierce intensity which stopped all of the self-pitying of Say Anything's set and led to a full-on dance party. The Fox Theatre security guards, who, while nice and accomodating to me as a photographer and a (young) member of the press, had built up a stonewall of "no"'s, glares, and basic intimidation movements for the mostly high school crowd, began to crack under the pressure of Love Arcade's live show. If anything would have convinced you of this band's future musical success, it would have been their 89X perfomance. They demonstrated their likeability and potential radio popularity with a quick, sweaty set that left their fans raving and even some of the beleaguered adult chaperones grinning.
While I snapped away in the photo pit, Laura wrote quickly and furiously into her reporter's notebook, obviously inspired by the performance. Enclosed, dear reader, is a mini-review which she roughly scribbled between masses of squealing, energetic 14-year-old girls:
Love Arcade, the up-and-coming band out of the Detroit Area, was our next stop. The five performers cemented a youthful stance to the opening acts, and a cacaphony of young girls swarmed the Fox Theatre awaiting their performance. I was shocked at the energy the local band brought to the stage. No wonder these girls were into them – I was into them. They were a visual cornucopia of color: the bass player wore a plaid blazer, the lead guitarist had an amazing baby blue glitter guitar that matched his aqua Chuck Taylors perfectly, and the lead singer, who magically appeared right before the vocals of the first song, was a sight all in white, and even wore lustrous angel wings for a portion of the set. The music was poppy and sugary, but that was easy to overlook with their amazing stage presence and charismatic, laid back style. Some of the band's moves were even synchronized (which gets me every time).
The only drawback I had from the performance was that I felt like they were geared toward a much younger audience; which is a smart move for a large fanbase, but opening with lyrics like "Play with me, just like a toy" is a little too juvenile, even for the youngsters. Everyone in Love Arcade was excited to be performing, they enjoyed it and the audience could tell, which is always a good thing. I doubt this show was just a gig for them, but if it was, we didn't catch on and that's how a performance should be – that's more than I could say about Say Anything. The guys – frontman Christian, bassist Seth, drummer Dorman, guitarist Thomas and keyboardist Nate – worked well together, and I'll be surprised if I'm not seeing 15-year-old girls draped in Love Arcade-branded accessories in the next year or so. The set itself gave us a much-needed energy boost, not to mention hope after Say Anything dampered our day.
A major downside of the show, though, was that it left Laura and I much more intimidated by the near-future of a Love Arcade interview. Laura, the more experienced journalist, was infinitely blown away by their stage presence and began to grow more and more excited at the idea of meeting them, although her intimidation was beginning to slowly grow. And me? Because this was my first interview ever, my stomach began to curl smaller and smaller as if it had become a black hole. It wasn't like I was expecting a Lou Reed reception, but still. Things became even more nerve-wracking when we attempted to find a place where we could actually hear what the band had to say. We would have used the bottom lounge outside of the woman's bathroom at the Fox Theatre, but a female security guard was set up to bar entry to all males. As Laura and I sat on one of the vast velvet couches, we overheard several ridiculous exchanges which led to our knowing, come hell or high water or a mysterious and hidden vagina which did not match the outsides of Love Arcade, they were not going to be allowed in. And while eventually the band found a place for us to talk, their choice of venue – backstage – heightened the nerves of both of us. Still, despite all of the gloom of my interview perceptions, it really went off well. I guess. [Interview forthcoming. -Ed.]
After the epic highs of both seeing and learning to love Love Arcade, Laura and I went to the Woodward stage to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at 8:15. I had fallen in love with Karen O, Brian Chase, and Nick Zinner at the end of my senior year of high school, and ever since I had been trying to catch one of their shows. Yet everything from being broke to a final exam to a lost ID had stopped me from experiencing their rock and roll freak outs. And Laura, being Laura, composed an epic metaphor about Karen O's voice, Rilo Kiley, and her great love for women singers. I would repeat it, but it would only make sense to, well…us.
Before the show started, adding to the weird mood of the day, we ended up meeting the bus driver for AFI. He was a grizzled man in his thirties who was going around talking to every unaccompanied nearby girl (or set of girls) he could find. While he never told us his name, he was an interesting man. Enclosed is a reasonable facsimile of some of the many life lessons he taught us:
AFI Bus Driver: Man, this business will chew you up and spit you out.
Laura: Have you driven for a lot of tours?
AFI Bus Driver: Oh man. I did Ozzfest… Warped Tour…
Megan: Which was your favorite?
AFI Bus Driver: Oh, totally Ozzfest!
AFI Bus Driver: Number one: the tits! Number two: awesome people! Number three: good money! I wish I could go back.
Megan: The tits?
AFI Bus Driver: Oh man, you see the most tits at Ozzfest.
Megan: Why can't you go back?
AFI Bus Driver: Because this business is not about you or you or me. It's about them. If you mess up, people who were once your friends will never speak to you again, because that's the business. A mistake is a mark that can spread to you and your friends. I was only ten minutes late for an hour early call time. Fired. Just like that. And now, I can never, ever drive for Ozzfest again.
That dude was a cool, weird guy, which was really the flavor of that day. After we finished talking to him, I headed into the photo pit to prepare to take pictures of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. This left an excited Laura to once again write and dance by herself on the side of the stage. Even I had no idea how excited she was to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, until I read this later on…
(Karen O testifies)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the most anticipated band for me to see live. I was sure they would serve a juicy slice of raw talent, and they did as the sun began to set past the outdoor stage between the Fox and State Theatres. Singer Karen O, guitarist Nicolas Zinner and drummer Brian Chase wowed the crowd, and were another band who obviously loved what they were doing. Karen O smiled and sang in a pure, crystal-clear voice, each ark and swoop perfected with the rest of the band's accompaniment. There was nothing bad to say about this set; every song I wanted to hear was performed flawlessly. Karen O's eccentric black and gold leotard outfit, red and black sequin scarf, red fishnets and colorful face art made me swoon even more for a band I already loved.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are known for their stage shows, with Karen O doing everything from slathering herself with olive oil to jumping in a pit of peppermints with Jack White. The thing that no one ever mentions is the pure joy the frontwoman seems to get from being on stage. She spent most of the 89X set with a large grin on her face as she danced around the stage like a demented harlequin from the '80s. Most of the time, Karen O reacts to the songs as if it were the best day of her life, her favorite song has just come on the radio, and the only legitimate thing for her to do is motherfucking dance.
And it's not as if she's the only one in the band having fun: look up at the first picture of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs again – Brian Chase has the biggest grin this side of Wisconsin. And while Nick Zinner and touring member Imaad Wasif weren't as expressive about their emotions, both looked as if they were in completely different zones of reality, where the only thing that mattered was the guitar and the music.
(Well, the guitar, the music and the Nick Cave haircuts, anyway…)
Though I had read that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing mostly new material on their current tour, such as "Warrior" and "Cheated Hearts," their set at the 89X Birthday Bash was mostly dominated by songs from 2003's Fever to Tell. The audience sang along to "Maps" and danced feverishly (if you will excuse the pun) to "Date with the Night" and "Y Control." Karen O was fantastic with her howls and screams between some of the most gorgeous female vocals out there right now. There is rock and roll, and there is rock and fucking roll, and Karen O is rock and motherfucking roll.
(Karen rocks and motherfucking rolls)
And while the day could have just ended for me after the Yeah Yeah Yeahs show, Laura had other ideas as she demanded we stay for AFI's set…
(Quick, spot the phallic symbol! AFI's Jade Puget reenacts Triumph of the Will)
Evening set in as AFI invaded the outdoor stage. I'd heard they were great live, but Davey Havok, Jade Puget, Hunter Burgan and Adam Carson blew any sort of expectations I had out of the water. AFI was nothing short of amazing. The energy Havok brought to the stage was staggering as he erupted into a vocal rampage that was felt by the entire audience – who, in turn, began crowd surfing (which is never a good thing when half of the show-goers are 14-year-old girls in tube tops). Havok was all over the place, pouncing on the raised drummer's pad more than once and emitting his intensity to the furthest brim of the stage on either side. Although the performance was exciting and energetic, it wasn't overdone or immature in any way. Havok's voice was distinct, unhindered and resonant, and the band's chemistry was wonderful. Havok's tightly-clothed body, by the way: also flawless.
(Laura's Adonis in eyeliner: Davey Havok)
Personally, I had never been too interested in AFI. I heard many an awed review from friends I had in high school, but I hadn't really believed them. But then there was a moment, even before AFI's set began, as I stood in the photo-pit cleaning my lens and leaning against the stage, that I realized I was in for an adventure. The crowd was so excited and built-up that I could feel their body heat pressing against my body, as if it were an electrical shock. And then they took the stage. I'm not going to pretend that I will ever buy an AFI album or wear one of their shirts. But there's no way I can lie and say that AFI are not an amazing live band. Davey Havok became a whirlwind of black hair, black clothes, and pulsating voice. It was more the equivalent of seeing a caged tiger begin to sing than any man. There are some performers who transcend the boundaries of personal preference and genre, forcing you to acknowledge their talent, and Davey Havok is one of them.
(Cage that tiger – Havok erupts)
Overall, the 89X festival was a fun time; both for high school emo kids (see the State Theatre and Fox Theatre lineups) and dance hipsters who rarely see the sunlight (see the Woodward stage schedule). If you get a chance to attempt next year's festival, honestly, give it a chance. You will be exposed to the weirdest, the youngest, the trashiest, and some of the friendliest members of society; and if you're lucky, you might see as much great music as we did, too.
Megan and Laura