We Love Music: The Radio Dept. @ Rock & Roll Hotel, 2/1/11

Radio Dept.
all photos by Erin McCann.

On Tuesday night, bodies were packed like sweaty sardines into a very sold-out Rock & Roll Hotel to see the Swedish dream-pop trio The Radio Dept. This much anticipated show was an early date on their current U.S. tour in support of their career-spanning retrospective “Passive Aggresive”. But for most of the young audience the show was really the first chance to see The Radio Dept. since they released their excellent 2010 album “Clinging to a Scheme”. This is easily their most mainstream accessible work and it was obvious that a lot of the chatty crowd were only there to hear songs from that album. The set list featured a lot of non-album singles, a few older album tracks, and the highlights from “Clinging to a Scheme”. Unfortunately a combination of the sell-out crowd making the room very uncomfortable, early technical difficulties, audience rudeness, and a complete lack of showmanship from the band made this concert much less than the stellar, atmospheric-pop display that I was expecting.


Young Prisms
“Young Prisms”

Opening for The Radio Dept. was Young Prisms from San Francisco. A slightly stoned looking group of thrift-store clothed shoegazers. I had been hearing a lot about this young group and arrived early to catch their set. Being unfamiliar with their music, I was expecting loud, noisy guitar squalls in the vein of other American shoegazer revivalists like A Place To Bury Strangers or Ceremony. What I got instead was a very pleasant surprise. Young Prisms version of shoegaze revival is focused on the beautiful and wistful end of the spectrum.

Young Prisms
“Young Prisms”

Young Prisms’ sound had me thinking of Slowdive and Soundpool with its buried female vocals and shimmering guitar. Young Prisms never really opened up the guitar throttle to shock us with pedal power; instead they opted to lay down a comfortably warm blanket of sound. The muscle of the group was reserved for the bass player and the drummer. But to call what they were playing for most of the set muscle is a stretch. Instead their rhythms were more like gentle nudges towards each songs’ conclusion. If I compared Young Prism’s set to a hospital heartbeat monitor, the majority of their set would be the near flat-line of a coma patient. Towards the end of the set, they played a few Ride-like numbers that served as spikes on the flat-line as if the patient regained consciousness. I could see how their relaxed, hazy approach could turn some people off, but for me it was the perfect way to warm up for The Radio Dept.’s sonic textures.

Radio Dept.
“Less talking, more playing.”

I like The Radio Dept. quite a bit. My old DJ partner Chris Diamond and I used to play them frequently at our Re:sonance parties at Rock & Roll Hotel and Jimmy Valentine’s. I can’t speak for Chris but what I like the most about The Radio Dept. is their willingness to break convention and play the music they want to. Would I have been happy if they stuck to making atmospheric guitar music forever? Probably. But as they shifted further and further away from dreamy shoegaze and more into gloomy synthesizer pop, I respected them for having the guts to forge into new territories of sound. Wherever The Radio Dept. drew inspiration from and whatever sounds they appropriated, they always incorporated them into perfectly crafted underground pop gems. I came to really enjoy their fuzzed-wrapped updating of 80′s post-modern, synth music. Leading into this first time seeing them, I was really very excited to hear what these seeming masters of varied sonic textures would do live.

Radio Dept.
“That’s more like it.”

As much as I love the place, Rock & Roll Hotel can be a drag when it is completely sold out; it is very uncomfortable to be in the middle of the audience and in the back people shout-talk so loud you can’t hear the music. It became hot and sweaty pretty fast as we all stood in our staked-out spots in the middle of the room. Almost unbearably so during the hour long wait between Young Prisms and The Radio Dept. By the time The Radio Dept. did take the stage and began to play, their set became almost immediately bogged down by some of the worst sound I have heard at the club and then by technical difficulties on the bass player’s end. I’m not one to normally complain about show conditions and I am usually very forgiving of tech difficulties, but the combination of the two things after the hour wait boded ill for the rest of the show. The set’s flow was completely lost and the much anticipated atmosphere that I thought The Radio Dept. would be so good at replicating live was non-existent.

Lead singer and guitarist, Johan Duncanson did not help things get back on track either. While Martin Larsson was fixing the bass, Duncanson was talking with keyboardist Daniel Tjäder. It wasn’t until after Larsson gave the thumbs up, that Duncanson then proceeded to re-tune his guitar for several minutes. This long delay just two songs into the set was a real mood killer and several people filtered out of the room. Duncanson also had kind of a negative stage presence for most of the show. It was as if he was so sensitive and shy that he created a charisma vacuum or something. Sadly, his vocals were somewhat drowned out in the mix too. This on top of the fact that he seemed to be mumbling the words at different points. I was finding it difficult to track the set list because I couldn’t understand a lot of what he was singing. Don’t get me wrong, his voice sounded pleasant through-out the show but the meaning of his lyrics was lost almost completely (and I’m not talking about in some good dreamy way either).

Radio Dept.
“Less tuning, more playing.”

With all of these set-backs on the front end of the show, it took quite awhile for the band to finally settle down and hit their stride. But frankly, their set was so short (49 minutes including the tech problems and tuning) that it felt like too little too late. Just as that highly anticipated sense of Radio Dept. atmosphere started to gel, the set was over. The highlight of the show for me was their rendition of ‘You Stopped Making Sense’. After a really tight run through of ‘Ewan’ that finally shook off the band’s nerves and worked all the kinks out of the sound mix, they played a really beautiful, trance-like version of ‘You Stopped Making Sense’. This one song represented everything that I was hoping their entire set would be like. While I am disappointed that the set turned out the way it did, I am glad I went to the show and that I got to hear this one amazing performance from them.*

The rest of their set sounded better after that but it still left me feeling rather flat. The audience perked up and bobbed around for the one-two combo or ‘Heaven’s on Fire’ and ‘Never Follow Suit’ (their most dance friendly songs**) but the dancing felt almost obligatory. Then came ‘Closing Scene’, which was great to hear live but kind of surprised everyone by suddenly being the last song of the show. The crowd stood around somewhat confused as the band rushed off the stage and the house music quickly came on. I made my way to the back of the room and lingered to see if their was going to be an encore to this odd show. After almost ten minutes of piped in music, the band came back on stage and played ’1995′. They thanked the audience for making it a memorable show and then as suddenly as they had appeared, they were gone again.

* These two songs gave me hope that on a different night, with less tech issues and jittery nerves, The Radio Dept. could be truly magical in concert.

** Probably the two songs that made this a sold-out show.

Michael splits his free time between defending the little guy and championing the underdog. He has been haunting the concert halls, dive bars, and greasy spoons of DC for the last 16 years. His interests include live rock music, researching obscure military/political conflicts, and good hamburgers. He is a friendly grump, has wisdom beyond his years, and is on a life-long quest to attain music nirvana. Follow him on Twitter if you dare!

3 thoughts on “We Love Music: The Radio Dept. @ Rock & Roll Hotel, 2/1/11

  1. I had seen Young Prisms before and I liked them well enough. I caught the last bit of their set Tuesday night and they seemed solid. Everything after that was downhill.

    I like Radio Dept a fair amount – though I think their current record is not that strong. However, they are not a band that even makes sense to play to a packed Rock and Roll Hotel, let alone packed with the kind of people who showed up. Seriously, this was one of the worst crowds I have had the misfortune to share a concert with in a long time.

    There was a girl celebrating a birthday or something next to us at one point with her shrieking, drunk friends and helium balloons. So much talking/yelling, phones being used mid-set, shoving… and so many fleece jackets. How did these people even find out about this band? I am guessing one of them has a friend who reads Pitchfork from his work cubicle so he can hit on “indie chicks.”

    Nonetheless, the person with whom I attended the show – he being more of a fan of the band than I – tried to stick it out. Until the band actually started playing. Which sounded terrible.
    Rock & Roll Hotel has probably the worst sound in DC. That does not mean I refuse to go there and DC needed another venue that size when they opened. I have even seen pretty good shows there before. Really, though, why must it sound so bad? And this was terrible by Hotel standards! I thought my companion, a musician who has played at the Hotel several times himself, was going to cry.

    We stood there through song one trying to give them a chance. Then through a second getting pretty uncomfortable and, honestly, kind of angry. About 45 seconds into the third we looked at each other, nodded, and began the process of pressing our way out of the room.

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