It’s been over a decade since avant-pop juggernaut Stereolab toured in the States, and anticipation of their return was apparent in the mere hours it took them to sell out the Granada Theater. Those lucky enough to grab a ticket to Saturday night’s show were privy to why the band transcends era and genre, in an energetic hour-and-a-half set that spanned their more than 20-year career.
Stereolab is spearheaded by frontwoman Laetitia Sadier and guitarist Tim Gane, with a rotation of backing players. They’ve been performing since the early '90s and released 10 critically acclaimed records between 1992 and 2010, though they're largely remembered for 1996’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup and 1997’s Dots and Loops.
Stereolab deals in odd meters and thoughtful French lyrics that combine to form danceable pop songs with wide appeal. They’re particularly known for their pulsating, mantric songs driven by “motorik” rhythms, a specific style of drumbeat with near constant bass drums on both down and upbeats that give the effect of a perfectly looped rhythm.
The room was still filling Saturday night when Chicago-based opener Bitchin’ Bajas hit the stage. The Bajas played ambient soundscapes created through analog synthesizers, woodwind instruments and a multitude of different delay pedals. The crowd seemed to enjoy the introspective music but also looked a little restless in the standing-room-only venue.
This changed near the end of the Bajas’ set when they introduced drum machines, giving people a chance to move a bit and loosen up. Their final piece was rising, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”-esque layers of looped synths, flute melodies, clicks and blips. As the song faded out, the crowd cheered. They were cheering for the Bajas’ performance but also in giddy anticipation of the main event.
Between sets, patrons made their way to the bars to double up on drinks so they wouldn’t have to abandon their hard-won spots later. Others took the opportunity to buy a T-shirt or a poster. The line for the merch table snaked around the lobby and into the venue.
Stereolab’s last gig in DFW was at Nokia Live, now The Theatre at Grand Prairie, in 2006. Everywhere people could be overheard talking about how long it had been since they had last seen Stereolab and what life was like back then. No one seemed impatient.
As the house lights went dark and the band began to take the stage, the crowd cheered like they were seeing a long-lost friend. When the first notes of “Brakhage” rang out, they lost their minds.
The room was packed, but it didn’t stop people from dancing in place. Sadier’s voice was crisp and clear, cutting through the mix as the band seamlessly thumped from one song to the next.
When Sadier was not playing a synthesizer or tambourine, she picked up her guitar, strung upside down and left-handed, and introduced familiar lead lines that made concertgoers smile at one another in recognition of the melodies.
The applause grew louder after each song. People confessed their love for the band, and Sadier acknowledged their cries of admiration, smiling and speaking to each person directly.
Midway through the set, Sadier invited the crowd to “French Disko,” and Stereolab dived into the track. Gane’s forearms tensed as he pumped out the chords, his head swaying back and forth to the rapid tempo.
Andy Ramsay, the drummer on this tour, never had a moment to rest. He was too busy taking cues from Gane and Sadier, keeping the set moving in pace, sweat dripping as his arms and legs beat furiously.
The bassist on Stereolab’s best-known album, Joseph Waston, is touring with the band this go-around. He has also taken on the hefty task of singing former member Mary Hansen’s backing vocal lines.
Not just simple harmonies, Hansen’s vocals were a unique amalgamation of melody and repetitive lyrics, sometimes focusing on a single word or ululation that acts more like percussion than harmony. Watson tackled these masterfully, melding with Sadier so well, it occasionally seemed like Hansen was still somewhere in the mix.
Hansen’s death in a 2002 cycling accident was a huge blow to the band. They took time off to mourn and it was rumored to be the end of Stereolab. However, 2004’s Margerine Eclipse marked their triumphant return to the recording studio and the band’s earlier, more concise song form.
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Songs post-Hansen were shorter and had more focused melodies with less drone. Stereolab emerged from the devastating loss together and tight-knit. All this could be seen and heard on Saturday night. Songs sounded like their recorded counterparts, if a bit sped up in the excitement of the performance.
When Sadier announced Stereolab’s last song, the crowd yelled out in desperate protest. Sadier smiled and offered a few calming words so the band could finish. The applause became so deafening that Stereolab didn’t bother leaving the stage for the encore.
“Dallas loves you!” one man yelled when Stereolab picked up their instruments again. “Is that true?” Sadier inquired. If Saturday night was any indication, yes, yes it is.