STRIPED WHITE JETS: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Starlight Ballroom, Last Night
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE INQUIRER First, a bite of crow: in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess to being among the few critics that did not clap my hands or say ‘Yeah’ when CYHSY first blazed across the night sky of the blogosphere two years ago, leaving behind of phosphorous tail of spent Pitchfork hype and Brooklyn hipster cachet. But it would seem that either they have changed or I have, or perhaps a little of both. Judging from CYHSY’s taut, expansive and altogether persuasive performance Friday night at the Starlight Ballroom, I must declare: After year non-stop on the road these guys have finally grown into their hype.
Opening with a zooming cover of Guided By Voices’ “Motor Away” that was one part homage to a discernible influence, and one part lets-get-this-party -started-right, frontman Alec Ounsworth stood center stage beneath a low-slung engineer’s cap, sporting impossibly striped white trousers and a hipster mustache that made him look like Gram Parsons’ last stand. His adenoidal whine — an acquired taste to be sure — couldn’t quite follow all the highs and lows of Robert Pollard’s melody, but found instead new ways to get to the finish line. Fourteen songs later CYHSY fired up “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth” — with its gyroscopic guitars, martial drum thwack, hooky bass and Ounsworth’s slurry yelp — and it felt like a victory lap, a notion reinforced by the near-capacity crowd which cheered the song’s opening synth salvo like a local boy home from the war.
But the faux-Brechtian miniature of “Clap Your Hands Say Yeah” was better when Tom Waits did it back in 1993, and called it “Lucky Day (Overture)” on the Black Rider. Likewise, the Beach Boy signifiers of “Underwater (You And Me)” felt like ham-fisted tribute instead of re-invention, and like more than a few CYHSY songs, it seems to be one sandwich short of a full picnic.
Still, these are minor quibbles about a largely exceptional performance. The band has a knack for writing intriguingly quaint yet thoroughly modern-sounding songs, which they invariably record in an artsy, but not necessarily inviting or entirely flattering manner. Friday night, the drums and bass were mixed as high as the rest of the instruments, giving the songs warmth and heft, not to mention mid-range and incessant motivation. And when those twinkling, hyper-strummed guitars meshed with that dreamy, pneumatic wheeze of New Wave synth, as on “In This Home On Ice” or “Foreign Land” or “She Smiles,” CYHSY could do no wrong.
[Photos by MICHAEL DONOVAN]
INSTA-REVIEW: 10 Things You Should Know About CYHSY At The Starlight Ballroom Last Night
1.) First, a shoutout to Sean Agnew and those crazy kids at R5 for re-christening the Starlight Ballroom — open once more after the late troubles near Club Polaris — in fine, if sober, style. No liquor, lots of security, weird no-reentry smoking policy, but we ain’t mad.
2.) It’s amazing what a year on the road will do for a band. That ’round the world road trip took everybody’s favorite not-actually-a-Philly-band-Philly-band from Johnny Brenda’s, where I last saw them in December, to dates and festivals from Europe to Australia. Now, back once more, all that work has resulted in a tighter, brighter, more solid set.
3.) Alec Ounsworth‘s command of his own voice is also growing. Sometimes when he’s going for plaintive he can come off whiny — and yes, there is a difference — but that happens less and less. Though they still push some of the songs too fast, especially “Satan Said Dance” and “Is This Love?
4.) The contrast in quality between the band’s first and second records is even more stark in a live setting. “Yankee Go Home” and “Underwater (You and Me)” translate well enough live, but can’t compete with “In This Home On Ice” and “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood,” which really crackled thanks to bouncy, buoyant acoustic guitar strummage. Said strummage all by itself was almost enough to get drunk on.
5.) Seriously, though, a beer would have helped.
6). Delta Spirit, in their second Philadelphia opening spot in as many weeks, continues to be the band to beat! Raspy vocals from multiple singers, screaming keys, and odd t-shirts rife with grammar and spelling mistakes make Delta Spirit a fast favorite. The next Cold War Kids? How about a pretty damn good rock and roll act that could definitely make the transition from opener to headliner in no time. Added bonus: Delta Spirit’s (surprisingly) enthusiastic fanbase is led by an incredibly boisterous fellow whose MC Hammer-esque look is exactly the shot in the heart the scene needs.
7). The members of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are probably all conscious of the hype that has surrounded their little-band-that-could since its self-titled debut in 2005, but it clearly has no effect on their performance. Or did it? The band tore through their 15+ song set as though the crowd had never heard of them, and this was their one shot to prove themselves all over again.
8). Lee and Tyler Sargent commanded either side of the stage like bookend virtuosos, laying down the strummy chug at the heart of most CYHSY.
9). Not much can prepare you for the brain-pummeling assault that is seeing “Clap Your Hands,” the first song off CYHSY’s debut, performed live with the gusto and flourish only a rags-to-riches, owned and operated, straight-outta-Brooklyn (by way of Philly) band can produce.
10). CYHSY’s frontman Alec Ounsworth proved that you don’t have to be a cheerleader to use a megaphone. And he managed to look incredibly badass while doing it.
PHOTOS & TEXT BY MICHAEL DONOVAN & AMY Z. QUINN
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