July 25, 2011
@ Great American Music Hall
Better than: Actually trying to play dance music in a leather jacket and combat boots.
The thought of a New York goth electro bedroom project producing a song called "Icons of Summer" was already fraught with unintentional comedy when Cold Cave's latest record, Cherish the Light Years, was released earlier this year. As a band known mostly for loud new wave bangers and a not-so-vague visual resemblance to a black leather jacketed version of Kraftwerk's Man Machine cover, it seemed we could never expect anything either summery or iconic from Cold Cave.
Yet last night, Cold Cave came out with synths blazing at the Great American Music Hall on its Icons of Summer tour -- a show that stomached all irony in the name of grandiosity and an effort from the band members to be just those darkened summertime idols for which a largely black-clad crowd was looking.
Before the self-proclaimed icons could take the stage, though, an undercapacity crowd was treated to the bewitching, undulating chanteuses of up-and-coming minimalists Austra. Reminiscent of Zola Jesus and Fever Ray, Austra created truly scary gothic soundscapes using extremely sparse beats composed of looped keyboard lines and repetitive bass in combination with Gypsy harmonies and slowly burning drums. The sirenlike chants were intoxicating enough to recall sensationalized news reports about dungeon raves filled with hookah smoke, mescaline, and the omnipresent sense that everybody might have to drink some Kool-Aid before the night was over. Which naturally made Austra's refrain of "I want you, I need you brother" even creepier than it would usually be.
With some tough competition to follow, Cold Cave slogged onto the dimly lit stage, its members camouflaged in matching black-on-black apparel. True to the tour theme, they opened with a rousing rendition of "Icons of Summer," followed by the highlight of the night, a spot-on version of Love Comes Close's yearning, euphoric "Youth and Lust." The band's setup was simple -- two massive keyboard and modulator racks adorned frontman Wesley Eisold and instrumentalist Ian Dominick Fernow's halves of the stage, while Alex Garcia-Rivera played carbon copies of the band's recorded drum tracks. The heavy reliance upon samples freed up Eisold to wail tremulously in his best hyped-up Gary Numan poses, while Fernow danced enthusiastically near his own analog setup.
The added stage presence proved to be a necessity, as the audio content was almost identical to the recorded works. With no guitar or bass to aid them (the band has toured with these instruments in the past), the only real differences came in the use of transitions and Eisold's personal vocal performance. On the first matter, Cold Cave managed to keep things interesting, using hurricane keyboard crescendos to move between a few different tracks. For the most part, Eisold was impressive as well. When he hit his upper register on songs like the villainous "Theme from Tomorrowland," a compelling live energy imparted itself into the set. Unfortunately, the patented '80s baritone that was replicated on "Confetti" and other songs was often lost in the aggressively loud mix.
Overall, Cold Cave did exactly what it was supposed to do. Between finding an impressive opening act that played into the gothic mystique that its fan base craves and playing an energetic, reverberating set that got the crowd dancing, Cold Cave had a successful night in San Francisco. Its still weird to picture the lonely synthsters as icons of summer, though.
This system is nonoperational: One part of the Cold Cave experience that fans missed on Monday were the visual effects that the band typically projects on its stage background. Some muddled images appeared at the beginning of the set, but were halted midway by text saying, "Do you want to overwrite? Execute/Cancel."
Quote of the night: A friend on Austra's unusual dancing patterns: "It's like a Southern rap video in slow motion."
Drunk girl moment of the year: During Cold Cave's encore, the following sequence of events occurred: Drunk girl asked me to help her finish her beer; I take hold of said beer; girl tries to make small talk that ends in her repetitively screaming something in my ear; girl grabs beer and throws it in my face, explaining to me that she was telling me to "have fun" and that I wasn't. So if I learned nothing else from this show, it's to always look ecstatic.