TV on the Radio With Nostalgia Granada Theater, Dallas Thursday, March 19, 2015
Last night, after a no-nonsense hour of deafening tunes old and new, Tunde Adebimpe and the rest of TV on the Radio walked back on the Granada Theater stage for an encore, the packed house expressing its gratitude with a synchronized beat of applause. "A moment's about to happen right now," the singer announced, and I just assumed he meant something musical, running down a checklist of possible songs in my head.
"Billy's got something to ask Catherine," he said, pointing to a couple in the audience near the front. Then he cleared up any remaining ambiguity: "Billy is proposing!" A beat later, she'd given the affirmative, of course -- a band this good creates transcendent moments just by showing up.
Recently, much of the alternative press has seemingly decided to stop being excited about TVOTR, though you'd be hard-pressed to find a decent explanation for it. They hit a peak in 2008 with Dear Science, a widely acknowledged godsend that put the muscle of their terrifyingly frenetic early records behind gratifyingly legible songs. The momentum was palpable; for once, it looked like indie rock might be tired of the funkless, milquetoast vein Thom Yorke and company had opened up for less talented imitators to bleed dry.
But 2011's Nine Types of Light and its rival The King of Limbs both met similar fates attempting to carry that World's Greatest Band mantle. Despite almost universally positive initial feedback from critics, both bands came out somehow scathed, the momentum fully gone. These days, I get the sense both albums are generally considered minor disappointments only diehards will fully defend, emblems of veteran pioneers settling into the middle-aged void of good-but-no-longer-great.
I went into last night expecting to rebut that narrative, at least in the case of TV on the Radio, with last year's tortured-but-optimistic Seeds and an equally vital live show as my persuasive evidence. Instead, I got a host of more complicated feelings. No doubt, their show was unimpeachable for Billy and Catherine, and plenty of other fans I'm sure, but it never fully lifted off. After the initial burst of energy wore off, I found myself succumbing to the mainline narrative -- solid, comfortable, confident, but something markedly below spectacular.
In fairness, the players don't control everything. The Granada's sound was loud enough to keep my ears buzzing for about an hour post mortem, each wave of dynamics shaking to the bone, but it left something to be desired in terms of spectrum. Nostalgia, the opening act, faired a little better in that regard, helped by the fact that their preferred dynamics are mostly forte or piano with very little in-between, making spectrum an afterthought. But Adebimpe's voice in particular lost some of its usual richness in translation, angling for space to land in the dense thicket of noise. The risk of having great music in tow is that minor quibbles with its presentation can keep you grounded, or at least limit the altitude.
With his growing and increasingly graying beard, guitarist Kyp Malone was the most rewarding part of the spectacle. A jam didn't officially take off until he'd made the shift from a carefully professional pose to bunny-hopping on the beat, and his backup vocals are an indispensible facet of TVOTR's sound. Adebimpe is an entertaining presence in his own right, free-floating around center stage, but Malone's hard-earned displays of feeling carried more weight, and his harmonies laid out useful territory for his partner in the mix. And oh boy, his lead on "Golden Age." Wow.
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The best portions of their set were still fantastic, if entirely predictable from your personal favorites; there was nothing really transformed by the live setting, nothing I was sure everyone in the room was feeling at the same time. And that bizarrely orphaned newer material? It stood up well against the classics. A standout from Seeds I was itching to hear all week, the desperate positivity of "Trouble" ("Everything's gonna be okay!"), lent melodic contrast to the noisy rubble in concert the same way it does on record; "Lazerray" proved worthy of its lineage, represented here in crowd favorites "Golden Age" and "DLZ" from Dear Science. "Staring at the Sun" was their final encore, an oldie that drew sing-alongs and tremendous applause that was clearly about a whole lot more than just one song.
TVOTR have earned that applause, and more, in a career that still has momentum enough to get people bending on one knee, proposing permanent life changes. Maybe that rebuts the mainline narrative after all -- not bad for just showing up.
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