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"Rock and Roll is Very Sweet Here": Stereolab @ The Warfield 5/17/2000, San Francisco

by Mr. Bad

2000-05-21 14:45:37

Mr. Bad reviews the recent Stereolab show in San Francisco.

Venerable tech-lounge-rock band Stereolab put on an excellent show in this execrable venue this week. It was the kickoff date for their North American tour, but by all measures it was a tight, righteous little set. Don't miss this tour! If Stereolab is coming to your little two-bit burg, pony up the cash and go see them, eh?

I've been a big fan of Stereolab for ever and ever and ever, since a friend put on "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" during a notably difficult 2AM coding run in the Hills Bros. building in 1997. There's something about the band that makes quite good poster children for the Bad People of the Future movement. They've been around since the early 90s, doing a trademark style of droning, guitar-heavy synth rock interspersed with freaky but melodic bilingual lounge lyrics.

Stereolab is sometimes called an "Anglo-French" band, since half the group is limeys and the other half is crazy hairy frogs, but they really have this solid FRENCH rock feel to them. Like, they have ZERO IRONY about singing crazy-ass lyrics about sex and undermining society and going to the moon and stuff. Take that nutty Serge Gainsbourg, for an example! French rock is completely insane. Americans always seem to feel the need to apologize for taking themselves seriously, but French people never do. This makes them extremely funny to listen to.

But anyways, back to the show. Myself, Negative Nancy, El Snatcher, and Ms. Bunnypenny all had big tickets gripped in our sweaty little hands for the event on Wednesday. We naturally ditched out of work as early as possible to get big beers before the 8PM show. We headed to a fine mixatorium right around the corner from the Warfield called Pow!. It's a real crazy bar with a shitbagged neighborhood wrapped around it.

Outside, in the crappy mid-Market area around 6th and 7th, there's grub and threatening sidewalks and crack hotels and that gross brown juicy effluvia, a mix of every offensive liquid known to man that's baked and trompled to a sticky resin, that seems to cover horrible city streets all around the world. I got hustled by an incomprehensible toothless street character who called me "Senator" and offered to watch my car while we were inside. I thought it was a coded threat, but it turns out that my dollar actually went into buying a fairly reliable albeit talkative security guard for the night. When I got back to the car, he was there waiting, babbling incoherently but standing vigilant in watch over the Mighty 4Runner of Doom.

INSIDE Pow, though, it's a whole different story. They've got crazy anime murals on every wall, and "Space Ghost" running on TV sets all around the bar. It's dark and loud, of course, but it's got that kind of infantilist nostalgia factor that marks a place as hip up-and-coming comfort zone for the scared urban white kid set. Like El Snatcher said, "All a bar has to do is go buy cheap children's furniture at Target and it's instantly hip."

This has no bearing on the fine quality of the beer there, though. We clumped down in a teeny booth in the back and ordered large Sierras from the bartendress, a pixieish blonde with glitter on her eyes and a teeny-tiny garter snake slithering through the strings of her spaghetti-strap tank top. Then we all fired up our various cell phones and tried to guide in the remaining members of our group, who were circling around the bar like lost fighter pilots: my good-natured friend Lawyer Chris and La Aterciopelada, who'd been bitching because no one got her a ticket but was accomodated at the last minute.

The opening band for Stereolab (remember them?) was some schmoes called the Chicago Underground Duo. I'm sure they're real great and all, but we opted to skip their set and instead walk over and get a quick bite to eat at Taqueria Cancun. [We passed the 4Runner of Doom on the way, and my security guard ran across 4 lanes of traffic to assure me it was in safe hands. Joy.] Cancun (on Market St.) makes the best burritos in San Francisco BAR NONE. They are REAL, they have big AVOCADO, and the place is DANGEROUS as all get out.

So, though, the upshot is that we sauntered up to the doors of the Warfield about 8:35, just as the crowd of desperate smokers were bursting through to the open air to light up. The crowd was pretty strange -- a convocation of practically every dot-com 25-to-35 hipster in the entire City. It's weird to see your generation laid right out in front of you on Market Street desperately sucking American Spirits lights before the main act comes on, but there they were, for good or ill. It's a long-leather-coat and DJ frog glasses crowd, lots of striped sweaters and polyester and frankenstein platform boots. You know the type, right? I must have seen 10 people I knew in the roped 30-square-yard area.

In a way, Stereolab is like the Rolling Stones of the 90s. No, wait: they're the The Who of the 90s, more like. Yeah! I just know that I'm gonna be 65 and going to see Stereolab at the Oakland Coliseum in the year 2033. They're that kind of epochal band.

We went inside and got prodded and poked by various minimum-wage security asswipes. This is one reason that I despise the Warfield -- it's a Big Venue, and they've got that no-bottles-and-cans, follow-the-lines kind of atmosphere that just makes my teeth itch. The sound is awful, the place is poorly ventilated, and you CAN'T SMOKE, either. Damn them! I hate the Warfield! They push you around like cattle, the fuckers.

The only solution for the humiliating treatment was to scurry up to the balcony bar and deaden the pain with a couple of Ketel One & tonics before jogging down to the seats just as the band came out (to deafening applause). I've never seen Stereolab live, and I was AMAZED at how young the line up was. The music and lyrics are so political, sophisticated, smoky and dense, I figured they were all aging hairy-pitted crazy frenchies. But they're not! They're KIDS! They're BABIES, man! Little hipster kids, with nice flower dresses and boots and shit like that.

They'd set up so that all the girls in the band up front, and all the guys in the band in the back. So it kind of looked like a Sleater-Kinney show if you weren't paying close attention. So, let's do the line up, here: they had darkhaired lovely Laetitia Sadier doing the main vocals and a little tambourine shaking, with Mary Hansen on guitar and second vocals. They were both pretty darn nice looking in a rock star way, but me, Lawyer Chris and El Snatcher unanimously agreed that Morghane Lhote, a cute blonde hidden behind a stack of keyboards worthy of an air traffic controller, was the best looking, in that smart-girl self-effacing delicious way.

Sadier was cool, just because she kept dropping Frenchy lead-singer non sequiturs in between numbers. Like, after one roused applause wave washed over the band, she looked out and said, "Rock and roll is very sweet here." How fucking FRENCH is that, eh?

The guys in the band? Who cares? Some d00d on guitar, some d00d on bass. The only one really worth paying attention to was Andy Ramsay, a GIGANTIC behemoth of a man on percussion. And damn, did he percuss! He was POUNDING the drums like he HATED them. He beat those drums like a mule! My god, he's got to be the hardest working man in show business. It was a fascinating study in fluid dynamics to watch the giant ring of sweat at his collar work its way down his shirt to his belly button during the course of the show.

What was EXPECIALLY cool was that every single member of the band had at least one little synthesizer next to them. The drummer had a synth! The guitarists both had synths! Everybody was playing crazy theremin-like music in between their parts on their regular instruments. I think any one of them could have replicated the entire rest band on their little console just fine.

The music, of course, was excellent, and the crowd was just feeding the band with their enthusiasm. The whole thing washed back and forth, with the crowd hooting their approval when some wag yelled, "San Francisco loves Stereolab," and the band driving itself to further levels of excellence. They opened up with a couple of songs from "Cobra Group," and mostly played tracks from their recent released album, but they did go back and dig through "Mars Audiac Quintet" and "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" to pull in crowd-pleaser tunes like "Metronomic Underground" and "Etoiles Electroniques." It was cool that they responded well without pandering. Good job.

One thing that I found strange was that they played EVERYTHING live. Like, if you've heard Stereolab, you know that their trademark is this long, droning repetitive style, thick and rich with interweaving threads. I always figured that they did a few bars, recorded that, and then set up a loop and went out back of the studio for a smoke. But they REALLY play it like that. And the best part is that seem to LOVE it. They just whack at their instruments for half and hour, grinding out the music like crazy. I dunno what it is -- I suspect some low-quality French speed has something to do with it -- but they drove that music home.

We were up in the ratty-ass Warfield balcony, and the crowd up there was too stoned and sedate to get up and dance. Too BAD, because Stereolab is really good to dance to. The Pigdog people don't allow me to stand up in a crowd any more, after some bad episodes, so I had to do that wiggling chair dance thing that feels good but looks stupid. But then I noticed that even people down in the pit were just kind of doing the head-wagging thing, no real dance action. I can't explain it. These people were RABID for Stereolab, but no one danced. Go figger.

The whole thing ended just way too soon. There was an encore, of course, but it was just OVER that soon. We got herded out by the horrible Warfield bastardos, and straggled back to Pow, but by this time the whole crew was tired and demoralized. Everybody works too hard in this town (except yours truly, of course), and it's hard to get much energy to keep rolling on a Wednesday night. We had a couple rounds of beers, slumped, and talked to the strangely friendly snake-handling bartender, then charged off into the night to our respective homes.

Beaujolais for us, and Beaujolais for Stereolab. Like I said, go buy their new album, and see the concert, and get the T-shirt, and join the fan club. They're damn worth it!

Over.  End of Story.  Go home now.

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