Saturday, February 14, 2009

You! Me! Dancing!: Los Campesinos! at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston

We showed up at the Paradise around 10 p.m. — at that age now where we can't be bothered to watch opening acts, although I hear Titus Andronicus does a good set.

You know you're going to see something interesting and original when you arrive at the venue and see not one but two glockenspiels on stage. You know you saw something interesting when band members have to run around between songs to pick up the glockenspiel keys and remount them, because they've been beating the hell out of them. That's Los Campesinos! for you, in a nutshell.
After ten, fifteen minutes spent tuning their own instruments and conducting their own soundcheck — what? would you have them hire roadies? it's a seven-piece band in a lousy economy — Los Campesinos! hit the stage hard, leading off with "Ways To Make It Through the Wall," the opening track off the band's second album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed.

This was Los Campesinos!'s second go-round at the Paradise — this time there were three times the number of people in the crowd, and the show was sold out. The band made note of this in the between-song banter. They behaved as though they were uncomfortable about the reception they were getting and at times they suggested they might be putting one over on us. All this is fraudulent. This band is brilliant on record, and stunningly good live, and they have to know it.

Why do I like Los Campesinos! so much? What made a great old friend of mine insist to me that they'd be right up my alley? How did he know that I'd buy right in after just hearing the one track he played for me, "Don't Tell Me To Do the Maths?" Well, here are some clues:

*Fast, furious, melodic music in the tradition of the Ramones.
*A violinist (see also James, Camper Van Beethoven, and other Best Bands Ever).
*A cute, blonde bassist (see also Stellastarr*, Smashing Pumpkins).
*And finally: clever, literary, postmodern lyrical stylings that range from the pithy —

I'm not Bonnie Tyler, and I'm not Toni Braxton,
And this song isn't gonna save your relationship:

to the downright incomprehensible —
We have to take the car 'cause the bike's on fire
We cannot trust your friends 'cause they were born liars
And if you you don't exist with hearts the size of a house brick,
Cease and desist!

All that and the lead vocalist's personal jerry-rigged drum kit (along with glockenspiel) at the front of the stage adds up to a can't-miss act for Phutatorius — though I recognize that Los Campesinos! might not be for everyone.

On that point, let's discuss this anarcho-syndicalist collective's front man (if that's not a contradiction in terms). Gareth Campesino's stage presence is as indie-cultivated as the horn-rimmed, hipster-shirted Paradise Crowd in Residence. He cocks his head when he sings, brings his arms behind his back, strikes sensitive, poetic postures. A fellow named Steven Patrick Morrissey started us down this path, and 25 years later, for better or for worse, this is what we get. It's no surprise, then, that a guy in the crowd repeatedly and indefatigably calls out "PLAY THE SMITHS!" between songs. For my part, I can never fault anyone who shouts these words — and the band members, too, take it in stride, serving up knowing smiles. And that's ultimately the saving grace on this point: Los Campesinos! are just fun. Gareth is, too, despite his grievous "I'm not comfortable being a rock star" put-on. You can't help but like the guy, because in between all the woe-is-me poses he's beating hell out of a glockenspiel, literally shrieking at us in an exaggerated Welsh accent (gone now the days where Brits endeavored to "sing American"), and attacking his drummer's kit.

In addition to "Ways," Los Campesinos! served up five other tracks from November's WAB, WAD. I bought this album last week, and I wasn't sold on it before the show. I'm not sure I'm sold now — it came out in a hurry, within 8 months of the debut LP I like a lot better — but some of the performances won me over to certain tracks. "Miserabilia" and the title track were two of these. I was pleased when Gareth introduced "You'll Need Those Fingers for Crossing," a song he said is about "a bulimic suicide pact." Oh, now I get it. Urk. The problem is that once you've been clued in to that fact, you don't hear this song the same way again. I didn't think they performed "Fingers" particularly well. Gareth noted beforehand that "nobody likes it," and afterward he thanked us "for our patience." "Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1" and "All Your Kayfabe Friends" were the two other new-album bits.

Notwithstanding their promises to inflict a disproportionate amount of the new material on us, the band served up a tweener single, "International Tweexcore Underground," and eight tracks off the Hold It Now, Youngster . . . album. "My Year in Lists" and "This is How You Spell, 'HAHAHA We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux Romantics'" were two standouts. "You! Me! Dancing!" was the show's climactic number, with its sustained Two Men/One Drum Kit beatdown firing up the crowd before the rhythm guitars triggered and the song suddenly snapped into its groove. This is standard fare at a Los Campesinos! show — at least, based on the two I've seen — and it's great theater. Same, too, for the band's coordinated amplifier-climbing at the end of "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks," the last song before the encore, "Broken Heart Beats Sound like Breakbeats." "Knee Deep at ATP," "Drop It Doe Eyes," and "Death to Los Campesinos!" also made the set list, which according to Gareth, was written out on pita bread that Neil and Tom Campesino subsequently tore up and fed to the crowd (I did not personally witness this administration of Communion and can't say for sure that it happened).

All in all, a terrific show, notwithstanding certain tired indie aesthetic tics and the all-too-periodic bouts of unintended feedback. They're the Ramones with glockenspiels and English lit degrees. They're Belle & Sebastian on speed. They're Los Campesinos! Buy their albums; go see 'em.

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