Road Trip #3: A tale of Two Gigs
L Magazine describes the R.E.M./Modest Mouse/National concert at Madison Square Garden, Thursday June 19, as “Just you and about 20,000 of your closest friends taking an active interest in your local indie scene.” Which means the Ting Tings at Southpaw in Brooklyn the following night is just me and about 200 of my “closest friends” taking an active interest in… a band on the same major label as Modest Mouse?
Not trusting MSG to sell alcohol after my experience at Jones Beach last week, I force my fellow middle-aged dad to hit a local bar with me beforehand. We miss part of Modest Mouse in the process.
Knowing full well that Southpaw sells alcohol, I visit a local bar with a different fellow middle-aged dad before the Ting Tings show. The 4th Avenue Pub has opened since I left Park Slope. It looks like a dive from out front but it sells about 40 or 50 different beers – including Keegan’s of Kingston! – and has a nice little backyard. I have a Rogue Soba IPA. (That’s Soba as in the noodles, not as in non-alcoholic.) We miss part of Anna Rossi’s set in the process.
I have nothing against either support act. I’m also not completely taken by either support act. Modest Mouse make a lot of noise, but it might be better served with an audience that fully appreciates it; the arena opening slot is never as glamorous as it sounds. Anni Rossi makes very little noise – it’s just her and her viola, and she’s plucking away at a Cure song as we enter, which seems appropriate (if not desperately original), given that the Cure are themselves playing the Garden that night. But hey, I have a short attention span. I see as much of each act as I need to.
At MSG, I hook up briefly with friends who have driven down from the Catskills.
At Southpaw, I hook up briefly with the promoter, who was once the bartender, who has, in the period since I left the ‘hood for the Catskills, been instrumental in promoting the Catskills’ Felice Brothers – so much so that he recently came up to Woodstock to see them at one of Levon Helm’s Rambles. Small world.
My seats at the Garden are perfect, just above and to the side of the floor. They’re rendered even better by the fact that the people in front of me stay seated throughout the show.
At Southpaw, nobody sits.
Tickets at MSG are $79.
Tickets at Southpaw are $15.
Um, I didn’t pay for either.
R.E.M. play for two hours.
The Ting Tings play for about 40 minutes.
R.E.M.’s opening acts are both renowned and worth a fair ticket price in their own right (in a smaller venue): Modest Mouse play for at least 45 minutes, The National play for about 40 minues.
Anni Rossi has a single out on Too Pure, but is not exactly renowned.
And so, for all that we tend to assume that arena shows are overpriced, the R.E.M. show looks like surprisingly good value. Especially as ticket prices actually start below $40.
I thought I didn’t like arena concerts. I had figured I preferred outdoor events like at Jones Beach. But after the previous weekend’s thunderous disappointment, I have now decided I prefer arena concerts after all.
Though to be honest, what I really like in life is club gigs. I find it hard to live without them. It’s not so much about the band in question as the vibe of just seeing the band in question – being in a club, checking the crowd, catching the mood, getting a sense of what’s happening on the live scene.
The R.E.M. show starts in a blaze of energy, with “Living Well Is The Best Revenge,” a way to get the crowd up and on their feet from the opening notes. Even better is its immediate successor, “These Days.” Did I mention that Lifes Rich Pageant is R.E.M.’s most impeccable rock album?
The Ting Tings don’t have to worry about getting the crowd up and on its feet. The crowd is up and on its feet and in their face from the off. They start with “We Walk” – not the R.E.M. song of the same name, but one of their own. It takes time to build, but what I assume at first to be a subdued beginning turns out to be calculated; by the end of the song, it’s full on.
On stage, R.E.M. is/are an old-fashioned rock band: all male, guitar, bass, drums. All of it played live.
On stage, The Ting Tings are one of those new-fangled rock duos: male/female, drums/guitar and guitar/vocals. A lot of it is pre-recorded.
This raises the interesting question of how the Ting Tings provide their pre-recorded music. Instinctively, one would suspect it comes from backing tapes, of the kind that singers like the Ting Tings’ Katie White, in her girl group past, frequently relied upon; of the kind that any number of one-hit-wonder wanna-be disco divas have used when “performing” their latest hit around the witching hour at a major urban nightclub. But drummer and guitarist Jules De Martino doesn’t wear the headphones that would seem almost essential to play along with taped tracks. And in the group’s record company bio, he and White alike make a big deal about his custom-soldered effects pedals and how they create “loads of different layers of music…. There’s no right order, no time code, it’s all completely live.” White notes that “It’s not like a backing track. It gives you total live control.” I have seen drummers controlling backing tracks before – most memorably, in 1991, Renegade Soundwave pre-programming their various syn-drums to provide specific loops. I’m not certain De Martino, while pounding out a live rhythm with impressive zeal, is doing anything quite so complex as mixing the extensive backing tracks. And yet the manner in which he and these tracks start each song in synch suggest that he must have finite control over them. I don’t get quite close enough to the stage to figure this one out.
With R.E.M., there are no such complex questions of origination. Here’s a group that’s been playing onstage together for 28 years now – and can read each other like the front cover of a tabloid. You don’t hear many mistakes at an R.E.M. show; in fact, it’s often so seamless you don’t even notice you’re hearing improvisations on a theme. R.E.M. don’t extend their songs in free-form fashion as, for example, the Who still do, but they play with an energy and vitality, an enthusiasm and a humor – and vary their set list from night to night – in a way that very few acts can lay claim.
Katie White is a very 21st Century pop star. Equal parts indie queen and Spice Girl, whatever she may lack in the diva department she more than makes up for in cheerleading qualities. She jumps up and down, she claps her hands, she shakes around, she embraces and engages the crowd. I’m reminded of other, equally lively shows at this same club over the years – The Go! Team come straight to mind. The Go! Team were a painfully hip British indie band signed for vast sums of money to Sony. The Ting Tings are, also, a painfully hip British indie band signed for vast sums of money to Sony. The Go! Team recently released their second album on Sony, and I don’t think anyone noticed. Will we still be raving about the Ting Tings come their second album? Right now, it seems unfair to suggest otherwise. But ask the Go! Team and look at Sony’s one-album-wonder track record with painfully hip British indie bands – san anyone say Sunscreem? – before you reach any conclusion about longevity.
R.E.M. released their second album, Reckoning, in 1984. At the Garden they play three songs from it: the college rock country anthem “Don’t Go Back To Rockville,” for which Mike Mills takes center stage; the Rolling Stones nervous breakdown “Pretty Persuasion,” for which I still have no idea of the words (and no desire to ever know them); and “Harborcoat,” the album’s opening cut but one rarely played even back in the day. Tonight, the ska influence is emphasized by Peter Buck and Mills, with Michael Stipe trying his best – and failing – to skank along. Afterwards, he notes the influence of the English Beat on R.E.M. back in 1984. I do believe the groups shared the stage a few times.
The Ting Tings, to be more than fair to any possible one album wonder status, have hits. Three of them, at the very least. They play one of these, “Great DJ” as their second song, and the response is the most energetic I’ve seen from a Brooklyn audience since painfully hip British indie band Simiam Mobile Disco at Studio B last year. You remember Simian Mobile Disco, right?
R.E.M., to be equally fair, have hits. Dozens of them. Some of which seem to get played more than others. And while a few hardened fans are upset at being subjected to “Losing My Religion,” “The One I Love” and “Man On the Moon” every night even after all these years, it’s worth noting that R.E.M. don’t play “It’s The End Of the World,” “Everybody Hurts,” “Shiny Happy People” or “The Great Beyond.” Instead, tonight’s “less obvious” hits include “Bad Day,” “Drive” and “Leaving New York,” the latter a particularly welcome inclusion – especially as it’s one of only two songs I can comfortably listen to from Around The Sun.
The Ting Tings have taken their share of knocks from the British press for their live shows. A review in the Guardian last month called them “a jaded duo” in its opening sentence. Talk about bad journalism. The Ting Tings may be many tings, but they are most certainly not jaded. Admittedly, they are not high art either, not rocket science (unless De Martino’s bass pedals are indeed programming all the backing vocals), and it’s not the end of the world as we know it, but I feel fine all the same. The act is FUN! Come on people: it’s Friday night, everyone’s in good spirits, the crowd is drinking and dancing, the music is pumping, the girls around me are all good looking – and none more so than Katie, in her hot pants. What’s not to like?
Stipe introduces “Ignoreland” as dating from 1740.
Katie plays a cowbell and the crowd go wild.
Michael Stipe refrains from calling George Bush a “piece of shit” President like he did at Jones Beach. Instead he calls him, “the pathetic George Bush.” At MSG, nobody steps up to challenge him.
“Shut Up And Let Me Go” is another Ting Tings’ hit, the one currently in Apple rotation. It’s the kind of (major label) indie f-you anthem that feisty Brooklyn girls love. It’s also one of my favorites, notably for its “Rapture”-era groove.
Peter Buck is looking content, relaxed and yet full of beans. Mike Mills is wearing nudie suit and cowboy hat – the latter was not just a defensive move for the rain of Jones Beach. Scott McCaughey jumps around like he’s earned the right to do so. And Stipe… well, I agree with the chap who says his voice keeps getting better with age. And the showmanship is more comfortable than ever, too; it’s that of an arena rock band’s front man, but it’s neither patronizing nor insulting nor over the top. As much as anything, it’s witty. When you pause to think about it, every great front man in history has needed a sense of humor – and read into that what you will.
Some things never change at Southpaw, like the tendency to bathe every act in the kind of red light my Canon Elph absolutely hates. Despite being all of about six feet from the stage, there’s no way I’m getting a decent picture tonight in that light. I take video instead:
Other R.E.M. highlights at MSG from across the years: “Disturbance at the Heron House,” “Driver 8,” “Electrolite,” and a very welcome “Begin The Begin” as an encore, a song not even listed as a possibility on the night’s set list. (Pictured here.)
I’m not so keen on the Ting Tings’ “Traffic Light”; I concur with the reviewer who says its inclusion as a “slow song” is more for Katie’s benefit than that of the audience.
“I’m Gonna DJ” has an NYC Scrabble ting going on in the background. “Man-Sized Wreath” features the premiere of its video. Before closing with “Man On The Moon,” Michael does his political speech, about how they last played here in 2004 just days after Bush had been re-elected, and how despondent he was at the time and it was one of the worst concerts they ever played. Guess I’m glad I missed it.
The Ting Tings don’t have anything political to say. Unless, of course, you count the lyrics to “That’s Not My Name,” their third hit and most popular number. It gets me thinking of another group that, like the Ting Tings, suffered inevitable comparisons to Blondie: Voice of the Beehive and their excellent “Don’t Call Me Baby.” You remember Voice of the Beehive? Their second album was better than sales would have you believe.
The Garden show is as close as I have a right to expect a personally “ideal” R.E.M. set list. Three songs a piece from Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant. Only one from Reveal and Around The Sun combined. Sadly, none from the under-rated Up, though “Walk Unafraid” has shown up elsewhere on the tour. You could make an assumption that R.E.M. were becoming an oldies act based on this above count if not for the fact that Accelerate finally brought them back on track. It’s a triumph, and they know it. Best of all, the songs are designed to be played live. Tonight’s set features no less than seven of them.
According to the LA Times’ reviewer, Todd Martens, The Ting Tings play nine of the ten songs from their debut album We Started Nothing, somehow extending the run time from 35 minutes to 45 in the process. It didn’t feel that long to me, but then I wasn’t really counting.
Johnny Marr joins R.E.M. again for “Fall On Me” and “Man on the Moon.” This time I’m ready to film the two guitarists and their black Rickenbackers (and Vox amps!) leaning into each other like old-time best buddies. Guest spots are not always my turn-on, but this one feels properly special. Who knows if we’ll see it again?
As you would surely expect me to conclude, R.E.M. is the better show, the more proven group, the longer and more extensive set list. It’s better lit, better back-dropped, better sounding, the musicians are better, the singer is better, and every note is played live. Plus, my vantage point is perfect. But none of that is to take away from the sheer unadulterated fun that is the Ting Tings in a small club. Not every band has to follow conventional line-ups, not every live show has to be judged on the group’s back catalogue. Going to gigs – as opposed to arenas – is about living in the moment, enjoying what the act on stage has to offer right here right now, at this particular moment in their lives, the past and the future be damned. The point has been regularly made that the Ting Tings are no spring chickens. But Debbie Harry was 31 years old when Blondie released their debut album. Do the Ting Tings have as many hits in them as Blondie and R.E.M.? The turnover of painfully hip new British “indie” acts suggests otherwise, but the unknowable is the fun of it all.