I’d call it the lounge music playing in hell’s waiting room. My friend Amanda, a longtime fan, called it “rock music you can strip to.” Whatever you’d call Arctic Monkeys, they slammed the door shut on ACL Fest weekend one with a sweaty, sexy Sunday night headline set.
The amber burn of the bulbs at their back, the smoke machine haze all around them — from go, the British band’s performance all but had an “abandon hope all ye who enter here” sign and a cow skull at the foot of the stage. Alex Turner was libido on two legs in burgundy pants, swiveling and snaking to the stage in a safari jacket and ascot that would have been ridiculous if he didn’t top them off with a gold pair of porn mogul shades and the haircut of a Guy Ritchie character.
“I doubt it's your style not to get what you set out to acquire,” Turner sang on “Brianstorm,” which careened through the crowd with guitars like The Surfaris and drums like a heart problem. A good James Bond theme, if James Bond movies were about coke benders. Turner rolled up his sleeves and cocked his head to the side. Sneered, too. You’ve gotta commit to these things called rock concerts.
The setlist spanned the Monkeys’ history, a real 2000s indie Brit-rock shakedown. Narratives of people on the edge and at their wits’ end, back to back — real gun-in-the-glovebox, blood-on-your-shoes, sharp-pain-in-your-head stuff. “Why’d You Only Call Me When You're High?” was a memorable mile-marker, and a raggedy festival crowd probably knew something about being “incapable of making alright decisions.” All night, Turner acted out the stubborn stamina of a yearlong bender, lurching forward with his mic stand like he had Atlas’ globe on his back.
“There's no need to show me 'round, baby, I feel like I've been here before,” he moaned on “One For the Road.”
Being the hard and fast night that it was, Matt Helders banged the drums like he was trying to beat out a fire. When there wasn’t a taste of cheekiness coming from the stage, there was an appetite for destruction, like on an unrelenting “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair.” If the set had a fault, it was a soft middle, but hey, humans have to slow down sometimes. Even in the mellower moments, the Monkeys were still burning down the ends. Sweat still slid along Turner’s widow’s peak all night.
The joyride reached a cul-de-sac, as it was fated to, when a mass-imprinted sound caused a Pavlovian phones-up from the audience. “Do I Wanna Know?” is a song I thought I hated until it hit me like a brick in the more frustrated parts of my brain, numbed as I was by a weekend of Texas sun. That “Boooow owww owww owwwwwww” has terrifying powers on a festival stage. If you were resistant to the song’s cultural omnipresence before, you kind of had to just simmer down and pucker up. You can fight neither city hall nor the Arctic Monkeys in a fever pitch.
The band did the whole encore song and dance (three actual songs, zero actual dances). Turner sat down at the keys and said “yes, yes,” because we all knew how these things work. Having sufficiently walked the line of sexy all the way to the edge of sleazy for one more go around, he popped the gold shades back on before making the real exit.
This, probably, was the devil’s music that moms in pearls used to warn us about.
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