Live at Madison Square Garden: Before There Was LCD, There Was The Strokes

04/04/2011 12:34 PM |

The Strokes
Live at Madison Square Garden
Friday, April 1, 2011

Any mention of New York City brings the crowd to its knees. This is not lost on Julian, who mentions it every chance he can, whether in song (yelling “NYC!” in the middle of opener “Is This It”) or banter (“How ‘bout those Knicks, huh?”), and it’s not lost on the crowd, who clearly appreciates the gesture of hometown hospitality. You can only imagine the staggering volume of, say, 20,000 people yelling “New York City cops / They ain’t too smart” alongside blaring, revved up guitars somewhere around the night’s the halfway mark. How very rock ‘n’ roll.

A decade removed from the release of Is This It and with the aftertaste of a lukewarm new album lingering, it’s easy to forget just how great of a band The Strokes are. But then you go to Madison Square Garden on a Friday night and hear “New York City Cops,” “Reptilia,” “Under Cover of Darkness,” “Hard to Explain,” “Last Nite,” “Someday,” “Under Control,” “You Only Live Once,” “What Ever Happened?” “The Modern Age,” “I Can’t Win,” “Take It or Leave It,” et al. — one impossibly catchy, possibly generation-defining hit after another — and you start to reconsider. I’m skipping a few songs here and there, and haven’t even mentioned that, yes, Elvis Costello returned on stage after a surprise three-song opening set to lend a hand on “Taken for a Fool,” but in what will surely become a long-winded battle among bloggers about which definitive NY band most owned Madison Square Garden this weekend, I’d like to make a case for The Strokes. For rock’s sake.

With the exception of Julian, no band member says a word at any point during the show, but their presence is overwhelming. They sound air tight, with Albert and Nick’s razor-sharp guitars blazing through high in the mix, Fabrizio’s drumming slick and even, and Nikolai’s bass melding it together. Without them, they wouldn’t be a band even worth talking about, but without Julian they wouldn’t be The Strokes — make no mistake about it, what’s happening at MSG is essentially the Julian Casablancas show. He wails out the lines of “Only Live Once” with a certain bravado not usually seen from him, and he hits the high note on “Under Cover of Darkness” that caused a hiccup on SNL a few weeks ago. As it’s been well documented by now, he tends to bite off more than he can chew with the range of his voice, so there are a few misteps — under the slowed-down microscope of “Under Control,” he sounds clumsy and vulnerable — but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. There are starry lights and a disco ball, and I’m pretty sure every single person is singing right there with him.

Though he jumps into the audience during the hyper-aggro “Juicebox” and sings “Take It or Leave It,” the band’s longtime closer, from the pit, he spends the better part of the evening in typical Strokes stance: leaning forward, mic cupped. For doing relatively little, he still manages to command the stage. Charisma oozes out of every pore, every vocal inflection. For as much has been made about The Strokes’ persona, it’s not entirely without reason: This guy just has “it,” that nebulous star power, but then, after “Hard to Explain,” says something like, “Sitting in my room… writing that song I was not expecting this. This is crazy, this is crazy.” He might actually be the coolest person ever, but, at least for tonight, he’s not too cool to care.

There’s no choir, no major set pieces, no super trendy chillwave synths, not even a real life-affirming anthem to speak of. It’s just five guys nailing a certain time and sound with songs that have aged far better than the pantheon of bands they ushered in at the turn of the millenium. “Your Grandsons, they won’t understand,” Julian sings on “Last Nite.” He’s right, they might not get what the big deal was about The Strokes… but for their sake, I hope they do.