Every review of Stereolab falls short of capturing what they are, and what they can be. Phrases like "Ambient" and "space-age pop" get thrown around for lack of better terms. Yes, they are ambient and yes they are a pop band for the space age, but they are also one hell of a powerful group of musicians. Having never seen them live prior to their appearance in Chicago at the Vic theater, October 31, 2001, I had little idea what to expect. Albums like Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops (not to mention this year's great Sound-Dust [Elektra], a recording that finds them back in control of their concept) being such classic examples of what a great studio band they are, it was difficult to imagine them pulling it off live. I was worried that I was about to witness a band more suited for the studio than the stage.
All fears were assuaged moments into their first song. The beautiful dual vocals were executed perfectly over shuffling guitar and keyboard blasts, but what stuck me most was the heavy rhythm section- something one might only sense on record. The haunting melodies and trancy keyboard experimentation could not obscure the powerful drum and bass work that anchored each song and made it impossible not to tap a toe. Hell, many of us were seen shaking our heads and a more than a few danced. It never occurred to me that this was a band that could also rock. It makes sense when one considers the foundation of all of their best material: the beat. The percussion was as steady as a rock allowing the other band members to lay their voices, keys, and even a trombone, creating a whirlwind of compelling melodies that consistently raised a gleeful smile.
Like a typical Stereolab record, the show was a lot of things: hypnotic, eerie, joyous, and yes, very ambient. The mood could shift from dreamy to intense as easily as the weather, and never once did I find myself wishing I was anywhere else. In fact, it all ended too soon, even thought they played a full set along with a two song encore. It is the frustration of trying to describe with mere words the awe of such a show, and as a result we lowly reviewers must resort to the same tired adjectives: spacy, ambient, pop, etc. they will have to suffice here, but if you really want to know what Stereolab is capable of, buy Sound-Dust and go see them live.