Stereolab with Clearlake in St. Louis
By
Travis Johnson
4/10/2004 12:11:35 PM

There’s just something about Thursdays. Something about Thursday crowds-- those over-enthusiastic, minimum-wage kids and lushes who can’t wait even one more day before the brain-cell-annihilating rituals of the weekend. But there’s also something notably hip about concert crowds faithfully attending a weekday show. These are the die-hards, folks who’d tell their bosses to go to Hell should they be denied requests off for concert nights. Thursday night saw an unusually large gathering of such happy degenerates at the Pageant, and blame may be attributed to the legendary booty-shakin’ mindfuck, Stereolab, and well-received, up-and-coming openers, Clearlake.

And God bless ‘em for it.

After winning a really nifty Stereolab promotional mobile at the door, and after fruitless attempts to convince the desperately-in-need-of-a-career-change security guy to allow me to enter with a camera (unsuccessful, so here’s a press shot), I rushed inside to stake out a nice spot behind the soundboard and began to survey the colorful crowd.

Nice! Beautiful youths, working class art-rock enthusiasts--even a hoosier or two. Wherever I looked, I saw the kind of smiles only smug insiders can wear—always the tried and true forecaster of a magical show.

Apparently, St. Louis ambassador, Beatle Bob gave Brighton, U.K.’s Clearlake its official welcome to the city. However, Clearlake would welcome us to their world with one truly massive feedback squall. The relatively young group quickly began to replace all of the space in the venue with its own distinctive waves of echo delay and reverb, pummeling rhythm, and the majestic voice of singer Jason Pegg (who, at first, thought he was in Minneapolis’ twin city).

Clearlake has been gathering steam and riding hard on the strength of it’s terrific sophomore release, Cedars. Fresh off of a stint with the Decemberists, the group undoubtedly seemed to be enjoying the perks of playing larger and nicer venues. It’s getting to the point where St. Louis yawns rather than yahoos when complimented on the truly wonderful sound inside of the Pageant—but for the record, Mr. Pegg did offer the band’s approval. And who can blame them for enjoying such an acoustical paradise? We certainly benefited, the quartet sounding energized and confident, Pegg’s voice sounding perhaps even more agile and spirited than on Cedars.

The group seemed to gel on “Can’t Feel a Thing,” during which drummer James Butcher’s kit seemed on the verge of nuclear meltdown. “I’d Like to Hurt You” found the band adding a bit more guitar crunch to the studio take of the song, though it retained the unassuming, circus-music-for-the-demented bass groove.

Newer material highlighted the band’s growing compositional skills. Clearlake songs feel like classically structured pop tunes, but delivered inside murky packages of carefully controlled guitar fury that often seems on the verge of shattering. Beatle Bob likely had to reach deep down into his bag o’ dance moves to keep up.

The band closed its set with Cedars opener, “Almost the Same,” dramatically upping the tempo from rock to RAWK, and giving the audience a hurts-so-good treat for which they’ll be remembered. Here, they may have achieved their self-proclaimed goal of marrying raw chaos to Tin Pan Alley.

Between sets, and after the halftime bar rush, things took a decidedly quiet turn as attendees gazed at the headliner’s blank movie screen with curious expressions. The audience willingly divided itself into “have’s” and “have-not’s,” those who have previously seen the band enjoying the captive attention of the have-not’s dying for a preview.

And then there was Stereolab.

The seven musicians took the stage on their own time, bypassing the usual cue of dimmed lights. They opened with “Margarine Melodie,” an almost Jamaican-sounding bass throbber that had numerous pairs of Chuck Taylors moving in rhythmic patterns that almost suggested (gasp) dancing!! Singer Laetitia Sadier calmly toyed with our collective cerebrum, changing the direction of the music with a few keystrokes and double-clicks that brought about some wonderfully weird whooshes, whizzes, whams, and wallops. And that was before they even broke out the trumpets and French horns that would guide the song down to a gentle landing.

“Cybele’s Reverie” followed, marking the night’s only selection from the band’s turbo-influential ’96 Lp, Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Cybele’s Italian disco vibe was well received, as was the beginning of the visual portion of the entertainment, a black and white collage of a bustling New York harbor (I think).

Sadier would reach into her bag of tricks (literally) throughout the night, sometimes producing a tambourine, other times more alien rhythmic devices—certainly always the right instrument for adding another impressionistic brushstroke to the dream-funk bliss oozing out of the P.A.

“Diagonals” would find the band perfecting their busy sound, body slamming the crowd with a B-3esque organ bump-and-grind, a two-kit assault, and a spiritually lifting trumpet coda. Now, Beatle Bob was born for this! He probably choreographed some moves just for the occasion.

“Sub Pop” found the band pairing jangling guitars with a club-bass pulse that had things sounding like we were at a Tortoise show—and considering the band’s impressive “has worked with” list, I even found myself squinting in search of John “the Human Metronome” McEntire. Unsurprisingly, this led to the first of several noise freak-outs, delightful enough even, to temporarily silence the annoying, cell-phone wielding woo-girl standing behind me
.
Stereolab—perhaps the most appropriately named music group ever—delivered psych-out punch after psych-out punch. Seeing greatness makes my job and easy one, as there’s plenty to discuss. Seeing brilliance, however, can make it more challenging. Day-glo pop intertwines with Motorik cool; trippy surf music gives way to polyester rump-throbbing, hypno-marathons—how do you encapsulate that in print? Honestly, no one has figured that out yet. But we can tell you this: next time the Lab pays us a Thursday visit, tell the boss to pack his sunscreen and say “hi” to Beelzebub for you. You simply have to see Stereolab.

 

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