While perhaps both Arctic Monkeys and TV on the Radio have moved past their honeymoon phases, the two bands have done nothing but improve since they both formed in the early 2000s.
And while TV on the Radio have recently been in San Diego for a gig at 4th & B, I didn’t want to miss the chance to see both of these exceptional live bands on the same evening. SDSU’s Open Air Theatre, despite a gaping construction chasm surrounding it, provided a perfect venue for the two groups on Saturday’s cool September evening.
Unfortunately, only a fraction of the venue was filled when the buzz-band/show opener Smith Westerns took the stage promptly at 7 p.m. The barely-out-of-high-school Chicago indie rockers made the most of their short set, playing spirited versions of tracks from both their 2009 self-titled debut and their January Fat Possum release, Dye It Blonde. Everything I had previously heard from the hot-s--- blog darlings had led me to believe that they were just another overhyped, derivative bunch of snot-nosed neophytes whose parents had a kick-ass '70s-rock record collection. But in the live setting, it was much easier to tell what, at least some, of the hype was all about. The brothers-fronted rockers wear their T.Rex/Marc Bolan worship on their sleeves, but do it so unabashedly that it’s impossible to deny the infectiousness of it all.
When the lights came up and the stage was getting prepped for Arctic Monkeys, it was apparent that the show was not sold out. A surprise, at least in my mind, for sure -- and it wasn’t for a lack of last-minute, trying, as whoever was choosing the house music had the golden touch. I had to believe that the eclectic sounds of UFO’s "Evil," Captain Beefheart’s "Where There’s a Woman," Elvis Costello’s "Lipstick Vogue" and Harry Nilson’s "Me and My Arrow" had to have attracted a few passers-by as they wafted over the bustling college campus.
The venue did swell to the most filled it would be all night as the Sheffield quartet Arctic Monkeys took to the stage. Lead singer and songwriter Alex Turner, looking equal parts S.E. Hinton protagonist and Brando’s Johnny Strabler from The Wild One, was all business from the get-go. He led the band through tracks from all four of the band’s full-lengths, including a few from the recently released Suck It and See, all with little or no banter. When he did speak, it was general niceties served up with brevity, such as, “Thank you very much,” or, “It really is great to be here San Diego.” It kept the focus on the music, and Arctic Monkeys are an accomplished live act. Never falling prey to things like cool-kid counterparts the Strokes’ pre-show partying, the U.K. wunderkinds never show a sloppy disrespect for the audience and are spot-on each and every performance.
Drummer Matt Helders hits with Bonham-esque force, and the rest of the lads fall in line. The highlight was set-closer and perennial favorite “When the Sun Goes Down,” with Turner pausing long enough between the song’s one-strum intro and its hard-hitting jump for the already frenzied crowd to give the biggest ovation of the evening. And even though they didn’t get it, the crowd chanted “ONE. MORE. SONG!” for awhile once the band had left the stage.
The unknown music selector again kept things lively as the expansive set design for TV on the Radio went up, but I was amazed to see a good chunk of fans leave after the Monkeys were gone. I know the majority of the young crowd was college-age, but there is simply no excuse for leaving before such an engaging act. Regardless, there was still a healthy throng of folks ready to welcome the Brooklyn sextet when they came onstage. Playing in front of what seemed like a giant backdrop of stars, the band ripped through a career-spanning set of tunes from all four of their records and a few EP cuts. I couldn’t help but think of their late bassist Gerard Smith, who died in April, as the band pounded out a workmanlike set, spending less time chatting than even the concise Turner. They were all seemingly lost in the music.
As always, frontman Tunde Adebimpe was drenched in sweat within the first 10 minutes, and the interplay/harmonies between him and guitarist Kyp Malone was one of the strongest points of their hour-plus set. While critics have heralded their latest releases, 2008’s Dear Science, and this year’s Nine Types of Light, my favorites of the night were taken from earlier albums. Their version of “Staring at the Sun,” from the band’s debut, was particularly feisty and engaging, while “Young Liars,” from the band’s EP of the same name, was the night’s definitive moment -- the song’s wall of guitar and Adebimpe’s wild howls at the moon crashed together with relentless perfection.
Despite the lack of a capacity crowd, the chatter as everyone filed out was overwhelmingly positive. I think the whole evening could be summed up by a young woman walking out hand-in-hand with whom I can only assume was her boyfriend: “Oh, my God, honey, that was totally freaking awesome.”
Blogger Scott McDonald covers music in San Diego for a few different publications and is the editor of Eight24.com