March 1, 2013
Better than: That second time you saw Phoenix, this time at an arena.
Midway through Starfucker's Noise Pop set at the Regency Ballroom, something strange is happening. The band is in the middle of strumming the opening moments to the bass-led journey that is "Reptilians," precluded here by an airy rendition of "Say to You." On stage, Starfucker looks composed. They're focused less on moving and more on maintaining the current song's groove. And if you stand still for just a moment ... the ground isn't shaking.
This is the third straight year Starfucker has toured S.F. early in the calendar, but it's the first with a moment like this. The band is known for causing non-stop motion in an audience, mirrored by the members' own frentic nature on stage. But this tour is in support of their third LP -- February's Miracle Mile -- and Starfucker seems to have grown up accordingly (at least a bit). Now, a non-stop party isn't necessarily childish. And happily, bassist Shawn Glassford still maintains non-stop motion on stage. But musically, the band is showcasing a little variation. Starfucker no longer plays all their tracks live at suped-up tempos, and portions of this set are more about in-sync instrumental performances than hands-in-the-air freaking out. Hence, a rare moment of casual but enjoyable head-nodding.
Still, Starfucker sells out venues like Regency for a reason. When ready, it can deliver a party very few can match. The drag outfits from the band's last S.F. gigs are gone, but the members have added a giant LED display to fill out the increasing venue sizes. This screen has a retro computer aesthetic, and it displays all kinds of appropriate accompaniment: hands, galaxies, fire, legs, even falling bodies during "Bury Us Alive." And even though the band passes on elaborate dress tonight, they tweeted earlier that anyone attending in a costume "might not regret it." The last three songs of the night become one of those Starfucker experiences -- balloons start flowing out into the crowd and costumed dancers rush the stage as if its a Flaming Lips show. A banana, skeleton, panda bear, pair of body-suit dudes, and Gumby help unleash the peak of the party. This is a bigger venue when compared to their previous SF stops. But even from the back of the crowd, the ground constantly shakes from "Leave It All Behind" through the end of the set.
Reviews of Miracle Mile haven't been stellar, and the band's setlist for the night reflects its place among their discography. Usually a new LP means more than half of it will be heard every night on that tour, but Starfucker's nearly 20-song set doesn't push 10 tracks from Miracle Mile. Part of it is the undeniable strength of previous album Reptilians, and part of it is that some tracks from the new LP aren't as seemlessly integrated into their live experience. It's an odd scenario, because the biggest knock on Miracle Mile is that it's more of the same. While songs like "Sazed" or "While I'm Alive" can cause a crowd to shake, a track like "Isea" can't. Maybe that's why it's absent.
Regardless of the latest LP atop their Spotify page, Starfucker continues to be a band where only the live experience does the music justice. At Noise Pop, the members demonstrated that they haven't lost their ability to party. They just added a few wrinkles, resulting in a few moments of quiet surprise.
This night at the Regency begins with a homecoming. Local act Blackbird Blackbird -- the moniker for Mikey Maramag's lush electronica -- opens to an adoring and sizeable early crowd. In 2011, Blackbird Blackbird played at an SF Weekly party in a tiny Lower Haight art gallery. Now Maramag's recruited a backing band -- drums and bass -- to accompany Starfucker throughout their current US tour.
The result is a set that would do its headliners proud. Blackbird Blackbird still utilizes prerecorded tracks, but the live musicians add simple parts to strengthen the groove (the central part of Blackbird Blackbird's music anyway). This works really well on tracks like "All," where the drummer can focus on fills to supplement the overall sound rather than strictly maintaining a beat. Most noticeably, the main riff in "It's A War" comes from the recording (though Maramag does jump on it later in the track), allowing the band to recreate those atmospheric instrumentations with only three members.
It's incredibly easy to root for Maramag live. He dances on stage with his guitar as you'd imagine he does while practicing in his apartment. He constantly smiles when he can step back from the mic to strum, and is quick to let the crowd know how much he appreciates playing here tonight. "It's a dream come true," he says. The crowd gives it right back. The enthusiasm of the large group culminates mid-set, when the band goes into "It's A War." Maramag tells everyone the sing-a-along part is coming -- but clearly, he doesn't have to.
Get off my lawn (or away from my stage): The Regency Ballroom is right on the path of the 49 bus. On the way there, riding a route that arrived about 10 minutes before Blackbird Blackbird, a man in his 50s quizzed two women -- clearly dressed for Starfucker in fishnets, neon, sytlized makeup -- about their evening. Would they be dancing with boys? (Nope). What kind of outfits are those? (American Apparel). Do they get wristbands at the show? (Not old enough). The guy was a tad creepy, so the natural assumption was that last response was the dagger to get him off their backs. (Nope.)
Most noticeably during Blackbird Blackbird's set, there was a large number of young people in the audience. Not "maybe 21" young, but folks who appeared to be in their early teens as evidenced by homemade tye-dye and braces. Turned out this was an all-ages affair and, apparently, Starfucker has really penetrated the youth demographic. Didn't believe it was possible for someone in their mid-20s to feel old at a show, but there's a first for everything.