When Bloc Party announced to back-to-back dates at the 9:30 Club over the summer, it seemed a bit ambitious. The London quartet had not put out an album in four years after a prolific three-album period. Bloc Party didn’t do the usual trick of announcing one night, waiting for it to sell out, and then announcing a second night. They announced both nights Sunday and Monday together.
The first night sold out and then weeks before the performance so did the second night. The closer the dates came, the more buzz grew from people I know. My oldest friend Doug, a diehard Bloc Party fan, was leading the buzz in my ears. He was confident that lead singer Kele Okereke and crew were going to hit the musical ball out of the 9:30 park — and this despite his lukewarm reaction to the band’s fourth album, Four, which dropped a month before they appeared in Washington to promote it.
But the genius of Bloc Party is that they know what works and when it works. Okereke for all of his vocal energy radiates a quiet calm when he’s not jumping around to his own post-punk compositions. The band’s smart use of their fourth album songs and a reliance on their most popular tunes quickly allayed any fears I had that these guys may have lost their spark. It clearly has remained there all along.
Bloc Party opened up with a catchy fourth album track, “So He Begins to Lie,” a song about performance appropriately enough. Then immediately, we are into “Trojan Horse,” one of the few songs from their third and most electronic album, Intimacy, and quickly into “Hunting from Witches” from second album, A Weekend in the City. Finally, they built up to their extremely well regarded first album, Silent Alarm, with “Positive Tension” and continued to give the first album a lot of love throughout the night.
The band relied upon their best-known songs to win over an audience that already was sold. “Banquet,” an early single and still perhaps the band’s biggest song, came halfway through the set, making an audience that already was dancing along to every song in the set dance twice as hard. Then a few songs later, Okereke relied on another favorite track to win the audience back with crowd pleaser “One More Chance.” A little audience interaction sent the frontman reading signs, including one that made a call for “Ion Square,” from Intimacy.
“I always liked that one,” Okereke says, but demurs on playing it because drummer Matt Tong usually finds it too difficult. Tong brashly says he’s game, tossing the hot potato back to Okereke, who again deflected the request, saying the band hadn’t rehearsed the song and it would be half-baked. The audience actually began to boo in response. But as the booing began to get a bit loud, Okereke eased it with a diplomatic apology and a fast launch into “One More Chance,” an easy singalong track that managed to arrest the attention of the room.
The band came back strong with a first encore that included “Octopus,” the best song and lead single off album Four, “Ares” and “Flux” for a synthesizer boost from the third album, and “Helicopter,” the first album’s ode to finding yourself.
The audience called Bloc Party back for a second encore with chants of UK football anthem “Olé, Olé, Olé,” echoing Okereke’s use of the song as a bridge-building interactive break with the audience earlier in the show. The olé chants built up until they engulfed the entire club, demonstrating that all was forgiven if the audience had shown a little disappointment over “Ion Square” earlier. Okereke and bandmates returned to the stage genuinely pleased and humbled and played three more songs — the new album’s “Truth” and the first album’s “This Modern Love” and “Like Eating Glass” — the latter another audience request written on another sign. It was a classy move.
All in all, Bloc Party makes me very happy. The band launched with the most earnest post-punk extrapolation of a thrush of bands that exploded early last decade in the blueprint offered by a new appreciation for Joy Division, the seminal late 70s post-punk quartet that set the United Kingdom on its ear only to do so again as New Order after the death of Ian Curtis. Many of the bands to spring from that terrifically creative period have either fallen flat or changed their sound. But Bloc Party’s triumphant dedication to the essentials of the post-punk sound demonstrates that love of the early bands in the genre — including Joy Division, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees among others — goes along way when applied intelligently by a discerning ear.
Seeing that in action makes me a happy camper and I was as pleased as Doug to see Bloc Party deliver on their ambition with a terrific show. You won’t be disappointed if you see them in one of their few remaining US dates this year and hopefully it won’t take them four years to put out another album this time.