The Dandy Warhols
Bowery Ballroom, New York, September 14, 2003
If at times the Dandy Warhols’ music seems to have the quality of a machine with their smooth, trancey beats and seamless musicianship, they undercut that effect by their response to the thuddingly cliched yell for “Freebird” at their Sunday night gig at the Bowery Ballroom. They played it. “Do you come to all our shows?” keyboardist Zia McCabe cried impishly to the fan while Courtney conferred on the chords with fellow guitarist Pete Holmstrom and then launched into a decent version of the Skynyrd tune, bandmates singing along supportively. The moment was one of many where Taylor showed an unpretentious humor, often hidden behind his haughty, carefully dandified manner.
What Taylor has taken from Lou Reed is implacable self-assurance, but not much else. Comparisons to the Velvets seem off to me, since the Dandys lean toward style over substance. “We Used to be Friends,” one of the first songs of the night, came across as cool and deadpan, depending on a catchy riff rather than feeling. A song on a similar theme from the Velvets would have been full of bitter specifics. The Dandys have a handful of songs that approach greatness, with strong, inventive melodies enriched by gorgeous harmony (that’s Velvets-y), but other songs are characterized by numbing repetition and are more like large, pulsating auras than a thoughtful narrative backed up cool chords (VU).
At times, the band would jam so long over a blah riff that it was impossible not to think of the band’s druggy reputation – because you’d have to be high to find it interesting. Taylor’s vocals were indistinct at first, and it wasn’t clear whether the words mattered anyway, in the throbbing soundscapes. The perfectly churned-out rock was catchy but emotionally disengaged.
But as the band played on, they began to relax into a series of irresistible soaring grooves. Courtney either sang louder or got more power in the mic – anyway, his voice gained strength and personality, and began to dominate effectively. The tight beats got under your feet, making standing still impossible. A few people threw their arms in the air, but not much cutting loose was possible in the sold-out Ballroom. Zia made cute, casual observations to the crowd between songs, and Courtney also unbent, asking for a drink (“Do they cost like $13, because it’s New York?”) and reminiscing about the big blackout: “We spent the night in a totally dark Rockefeller Center, and we got so liquored up… Cats were sleeping with dogs, it was just mayhem.”
His relaxed banter was a contrast to his stylized appearance: one lock of hair swooped down in a kittenish L-shape over his sculpted cheekbone from under a visored cap, and his sleeveless black T-shirt and cuffed jeans evoked Marlon Brando from The Wild One. The iconic get-up would have been laughable in a less charismatic frontman, but Courtney pulled it off without batting a mascaraed eye. In an era that’s embraced vulnerable, non-showmanship-oriented rock frontmen like Jeff Tweedy, the Dandy Warhols maintain the concept of the superhuman-looking lead singer. Without, of course, being heavy about it.
That seems to be the essence of the Dandy Warhols – they’re incredibly good at what they do, but angst-free and even casual about it. Courtney did a solo number after a smoke break – “Every Day Should Be a Holiday” – and he was spellbinding on his own, with his skillful, textured guitar playing mixed with his velvety (yes) voice. So the fashion plate is also a real musician, and he’s not just a guitarist. On one song he played drums, a sputtery, inventive rhythm. It was really good, not just novel. Zia’s keyboards and her occasional rhythm playing were rock-solid and added to the punchy beat that powered almost every song.
The sound was fantastic, and though Courtney’s persona during songs is mainly cool and unsmiling, Zia was beaming throughout, and announced after one, “I don’t know about you, but I’m having a really good time, and I think it sounds really good.” A whoop of agreement from the crowd. Someone requested an older song – “Just Try” – and the band obliged, but Courtney forgot some words and then screwed up the chords. “Oh, fuck!” he exclaimed with the casualness of a musician rehearsing in a Portland basement. He was really very likable.
In a way, though, the easy veering from joky Portland rockers to studied rock sound artists is suggestive of the Dandys’ all-over-the-map identity. The can do it all, it seems, from lighthearted 60s-esque pop (perked up by the Herb Alpertish trumpet of “Trumpet Guy”) to synth/noise experimentation to ballads to crunchy rock classics. As a guy said to me in the downstairs bar where I went for a rest near the end of hour 3 of the Dandys’ set, “They just seem to do what they want.” He, this guy, felt the band should have been more careful about the set list, so the varied styles in their songs had built with some kind of continuity. He felt that would have helped the Dandys set the place more on fire.
This guy sat near me at the bar and nodded a hello – no one had talked to me all night, so his friendliness was very welcome. He asked me what I thought of the show. “I think it’s amazing,” I said, since by that point, I did. “He’s singing so well, they’re playing so well.” The guy looked rueful instead of agreeing, and I wondered if he was going to unload on them – had I missed some flagrant mediocrity while I was scrawling my notes? Was he going to make me sound like a gushing moron? But he said, “I can’t figure out why the crowd aren’t more into it. Are they all industry flaks or something?” I said they might well be. That’s a notorious damper at New York shows.
The guy seemed obscurely crushed, as if he’d been deprived of an important catharsis. He began to seem a little odd to me. There was something strange about his longing for a stage-diving melee, and not only because he seemed about my age. It was a look in his eye, a hungry wistfulness that rock music could only satisfy temporarily.
I was still glad he’d talked to me. We said good night and I went out to the street, where I got a taxi and my driver was one of those shot-out-of-a-cannon New York cab drivers, and we hurtled to Brooklyn over the rain-slicked bridge, chatting and breaking the sound barrier at the same time. I was thrilled to get home so cheaply, and I complimented the driver on his mind-blowing speed. “Thank you, sweetie,” he said seriously. I could see he took real pride in it. It was a good New York night.