Arctic Monkeys made their return to the 9:30 club in a rip-roaring fashion on Tuesday night with a set-list that mixed their trademark hyper-pop with their new album’s dedication to song-craft and musical exploration. The effect was at times lost on the sold-out crowd but the combination of their good-will towards these Brit-pop phenoms and the lads’ savvy use of radio hits peppered through-out kept the good times going for all. I was extremely pleased to see this young band so committed to their artistic development in a live show when so many other young acts fall back on crowd-pleasing when faced with sudden global levels of success.
I last saw Arctic Monkeys at the Coachella Music Festival in 2007 on the “Favourite Worst Nightmare” tour. The band in ’07 was confident and beaming, clean-cut in hair and dress. Their set then was a barn-burning bit of guitar-driven Brit-pop that left everyone smiling. A great time but somewhat disposable on an artistic level; really a reflection on their sophomore album which to this day feels like a minor offering compared to their blisteringly awesome debut. Since I last saw them play, Arctic Monkeys have gone on to become one of the biggest bands in Brit-pop and have toured the world several times over; lead singer and songwriter Alex Turner put out an excellent 60’s pop-inspired side-project (The Last of the Shadow Puppets); and the band has produced “Humbug“, easily their most adventurous and daring music yet. The lyrical risk-taking and musical development on “Humbug” is a breath-taking statement by the band that they are serious craftsmen and represents their evolution from being the latest Brit craze to being vital musicians in a landscape full of one-n-done, Ipod commercial composers.
Arctic Monkeys took to the stage with the quiet confidence of wizened veterans, sporting a much shaggier look than in tours past, and launched into their set with a simple wave from Alex Turner. Right off the bat they ripped through an up-tempo number from each of their albums. The sound was bombast and fury as the band tapped into a snarling, garage rock energy. I was quite impressed with the muscle behind their playing which had much more in common with The Stooges than their own-genre predecessors Oasis and Blur. The opening onslaught was so engrossing that you didn’t really notice the other people around you in the crowd until the band took a moment to re-tune. Then an odd thing happened. Turner announced that the next song would be a cover of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand‘.
An Arctic Monkeys’ version of ‘Red Right Hand’ is certainly something I never expected to see performed live but at least I knew what Turner was talking about. Judging from the crowd’s reaction most of them hadn’t expected it either but more out of ignorance of the song than reaction to the sheer oddity of the pairing. Needless to say the cover fell flat for most. As a cover, I thought the guys did a nice job. Turner modified the lyrics to fit his breathless, staccato style and then the song descended into a maelstrom of guitar and organ for a good 5-minutes or so. It wasn’t until after the cover that it’s brilliance really revealed itself as the band segued effortlessly into a four song stretch of tunes from “Humbug”. The Cave cover had set-up a sneak attack for this slower, darker music. The drastic gear-shifter tempo changes, the near-crooning quality of Turner’s wisdom-beyond-his-years vocals, and the slight 60’s guitar-pop hang-over from Last of the Shadow Puppets played out beautifully in person; culminating in their brilliant performance of ‘Crying Lightning’. On that song their full power-pop sound melded perfectly with the darker more emotional presence of the new album to mark the high point of the night. At least for me. Through most of the new songs large sections of the crowd went from patient tolerance to ignoring the new songs outright.
Several songs later, the band closed their set-proper with ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ and the crowd went INSANE. A song I always considered one of their weakest is apparently their biggest hit with radio-listeners. In true lowest-common-denominator fashion, many otherwise lifeless crowd members suddenly were high-fiving, screaming “THE BEST YOU EVER HAD”, and spilling beer all over themselves. I stood there clueless to the song’s popularity and somewhat in horror as I watched this amazing show devolve into a Sublime concert; an odd end to an otherwise incredible night of music from some of Britain’s top pop-innovators. Mercifully the band retook the stage moments later to play a two-song encore that included a truly beautiful rendition of ‘Secret Door’; a version that I overheard some audience members call boring but had me singing to myself for days.
* formerly titled “All The Pretty Visitors”