Friday, March 27, 2009

Live: Harlem Shakes + Suckers

When: 3/26
Where: Music Hall of Williamsburg

I've been waiting a long time for the return of the Harlem Shakes, and apparently, I wasn't the only one - the band played their album release party last night to a sold-out house at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Though the band has played a couple of shows in town this year, this one felt like the true kick-off for the band's return.

The first opening act was Air Waves, but I missed almost all of the set. Next up was Suckers. Honestly, I couldn't quite figure out what this band was trying to accomplish. If they were aiming for dancability, they certainly didn't do too well - only three people in the audience were moving. If they were aiming for pop, they also fell short of the mark - I couldn't remember a single melody after the set ended. And while the grooves were occasionally good, they weren't good enough to carry the music by themselves (even when they didn't feature lame George of the Jungle-style synthesized timpani). I just don't get it. The band was good on stage, but musically, I think they might be a little too true to their name.

Then, after a frustratingly long DJ set, the much-anticipated Harlem Shakes finally took the stage. To be honest, the set started out a little shaky. In the mix, the guitar sounded weak, and the band seemed to stumble a few times during the first few songs. But thanks to their strong musical chemistry, they were able to plow right through without most people even noticing.

The Shakes are better live than recorded. There were a few songs on the album I just didn't care for, but when they played them live, I suddenly found myself loving them (with the exception of "Unhurried Hearts" - I just don't like it). The band was at its best when they adapted their music instead of copying the record note for note. For instance, "Radio Orlando," a relatively mellow track on the album, somehow became a near-wildfire last night.

And the Shakes are remarkable to watch. Drummer Brent Katz plays not only a regular drumset, but also a myriad of additional instruments including djembe, agogo bells, woodblock and an electronic drumpad, all at the same time. Keyboardist Kendrick Strauch is in a similar position, rarely playing fewer than two instruments at once. Meanwhile, guitarist Todd Goldstein and bassist Jose Soegaard often look like they are mid-seizure, knotting themselves over their guitars and shaking compulsively. When they aren't doing that, they are wielding their instruments like weapons in a duel, swinging them at invisible enemies all over the stage. And did I mention all four also sing?

By the time the Shakes got to their poppiest song ever, "Sunlight," they had the audience wrapped around their little finger - you could actually feel the massive anticipation in the air as the band played through the bridge before the song's final chorus. After that, the band wisely did not let their momentum slip for even a minute. When they couldn't jump immediately into the next song, they just jammed until everyone was ready, never letting the sound stop.

The band brought at least a half-dozen guests on stage, including three saxophonists. Surprisingly, there were few moments when the saxophone, my arch-nemesis in the world of musical instruments, really bugged me. The sound was rich and full and rocked harder than the album - especially through some shredding guitar solos that you'll find nowhere on the record. The band also treated the crowd to three favorites from their Burning Birthdays EP, a 2007 release that is less polished but just as good as Technicolor Health.

I was glad to see one of my favorite local bands so warmly welcomed back after a year's hiatus. And I was glad to see the band live up to and surpass the expectations of the hundreds of people who braved the rain to check them out. It was a surprisingly powerful night. Harlem Shakes, welcome home!


No comments: