Can you believe Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been around for 19 years? Can you believe they released their debut full-length, "Fever to Tell," in 2003? Can you believe they still sound this good?
The scene Yeah Yeah Yeahs burgeoned in and had a large role in creating — the urban playgrounds and industrial warehouses swelling with garage-dance-art punk and sweat and dirt and glitter and broken things and electric bodies — that scene and time is in the past. There is "No Modern Romance," the 30-minute documentary the band screened before their performance May 7 at ACL Live, to remind us of that.
Shot in 2003, it follows the motley band — lead singer Karen O, drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zinner — on their European tour right before the release of "Fever to Tell," as they shuffle in and out of hotel rooms and tour buses. They are young, extraordinarily talented and more than a little dazed by their surroundings. Karen O cocoons in oversized hoodies offstage, often chugging from bottles of bubbly to combat the nervousness and social anxiety that she masks when she struts and howls onstage.
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In the film, the band members already know they are beloved, but they do not yet know they will be enormously successful. Two key scenes show Karen O questioning her unhappy experience with the grind of constant touring and press.
In one, she is vulnerable as she admits to the other members that she wants to cancel an upcoming tour. In another, she is burned out and furiously hurling apples at the wall backstage as singer Har Mar Superstar, Puck-like, towels his belly and watches with bemusement at the side of the frame. Karen O believes in the band and wants to do something she believes in, but she has to put on a face every night to perform. Chase and Zinner quietly give her the space to let it out, and then she yanks on her avant-garde mesh face mask. The band hugs before heading to the stage.
The shots of Yeah Yeah Yeahs onstage in the film make it clear that Karen O was born to perform, and the footage backstage make it clear that performing takes so much from even those most meant to do it. Then the film ends and the band comes onstage, and we get to see how Yeah Yeah Yeahs have harnessed their explosive energy and creativity and channeled it into a lasting music career without ever sacrificing vision, spontaneity or style.
All three band members are older yet vampirically ageless, but Karen O in particular is almost otherworldly. She started the show in a majestically campy fringed cape and bell bottoms, white and blue and red, with a massive glittery belt affixed to her waist. Through crashing, stomping performances of "Fever to Tell"-era favorites like “Rich,” “Modern Romance” and the visceral, boiling, body-erotic “Cold Night,” Karen O thrashed and swaggered across the stage pelvis-forward, sweeping her neon mic cord along with her and rhythmically twisting her limbs to the sound of Chase’s precision drum beat and her romantically primeval, howling vocals.
These renditions of songs from early in the band’s catalog were a reminder — if you ever did for a moment forget — that Karen O’s liberating, unencumbered physicality has always matched the intensity of the band’s instrumentation. Zinner, who characteristically plays his guitar slung low across his waist, shredded feverishly, bringing the crunch and thrust and grime to each song, matching Chase’s pulsing crashing drums.
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As the show progressed into the band’s biggest hits from 2009’s "It’s Blitz," like the gloriously anthemic “Zero,” Karen O continued to enrapture the audience, shedding and then again donning sequined and leather and fringed fabrics to create new silhouettes, and I understood why people join cults. Karen O was following rock-and-roll marching orders from a higher, funkier power. She was achingly present, like her bones were made of charisma. She skittered and swirled and flung, her legs as much an instrument as any other onstage — especially when she stomped on the confetti blaster button.
The pre-encore show-closer culminated with some of the band’s most timeless songs. Karen O dedicated “Maps” to “someone you loved and lost, someone you loved more than life itself,” after which the band charged into “Heads Will Roll” with seemingly endless pogo verve. The crowd jumped, Karen O jumped. She screamed. She and Zinner and Chase swallowed the crowd in sound. They are born noisemakers.
The inevitable encore brought a tender take on "Fever to Tell" closer “Poor Song,” along with spit-water fountains, mic swallows and the band members coordinating a freeze-frame pose. To top it all off, as Zinner and Chase bent and contorted over their instruments to pull out alien sounds, Karen O hurled her microphone across the stage, where it smashed to the ground.
Then she did it again, and again, making new noise and new damage every time. She shoved the microphone down her pants, unzipped, threaded the mic and its cord out through the crotch ... and then heaved it to the ground one more time before walking offstage, the cord trailing behind her. Sublime.