Karen O & the Yeah Yeah Yeahs put on a rock concert last night. Despite their ten year tenure as a cult New York City band, the audience treated them not just with the familiarity of a beloved classic, but also with the excitement due to a brand new act. For those of us for whom 2003 was a year marked by the beginning of teenage rebellion and the first tastes of freedom, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were a symbol of that independence. Spurred into fame by their stint supporting The White Stripes and The Strokes, the fact that Karen O fronted the group instead of a man gave them a distinct, meaningful edge.
Karen O put a face and a voice behind the idea of the female “rock star” that wasn’t from the past eras of our parents, but from our age. The intensity and rawness of her voice, anchored by Nick Zinner and Brian Chase created a sound that felt like the harried, disparate process of growing up—and provided the soundtrack to cope with it. Last night at Webster Hall though, most of the audience was now grown up, still embracing the sonic rawness of the Yeah Yeah Yeahss with cheerful defiance, even if just for the night.
A decade has passed since the debut of Fever to Tell, but at some points one can hardly tell at all—the group has built a solid empire in a genre that lately feels like it’s washing away. When they played cuts off 2006’s Show Your Bones like “Cheated Hearts” and “Turn Into” their age was almost impossible to tell—these songs are seven years old and they could fit into the current indie rock climate with ease. But when was the last time a lyric had the same impact as “I think that I’m bigger than the sound” does? Not lately.
The new songs the group played off Mosquito felt like they fit in line with the trajectory of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but only time will tell whether this record achieves the same adored status as Fever or Bones. Their third record, Its Blitz! never quite made it past the initial success of “Heads Will Roll” but the band might have been at their best when they played that track last night. The new record tends toward soulful impulses, something that “Heads Will Roll” hints at but never fully embraces.
Still, there’s a reason the Yeah Yeah Yeahs came in at 32 on our most influential indie rock bands of all time list. Karen’s histrionics helped unbolt a whole vault full of defiant, smoldering female leaders, as though the turn of the century signaled a release for women in rock. Not that PJ Harvey, Patti Smith and Allison Mosshart weren’t essential for Karen’s own inception, but she felt like the essential female rock star of the aught’s generation.
She seemed to feel the weight of this at the show last night, parading out in the appropriate costume (a yellow, beaded short suit, a blue, sequined tank-top, & silver and neon pink knee sock/footwear combos) for a full fledged rock star and basked in full glitter under the rotating cast of lights. At one point she donned a spiked black leather jacket, for the encore that everyone hoped would be “Maps”—thankfully, it was— and Karen delivered the group’s stand-out longing-filled ballad wearing a red, white and blue poncho that looked to be made of streamers. She’s unafraid to dabble in the trappings of pop star, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are all rock, a fact that is largely owed to the bedrock of Zinner and Chase. They might not get as dressed up as Karen, but they create the steady flow of the group even if Karen is often the pulsating current.
Theirs is not a semi-interested fan-group, as the outrageous outcry for tickets to their NYC show to celebrate the release of their first album in four years indicated. The show sold out almost immediately, and scalpers popped up in the darkest corners of StubHub & Craigslist selling tickets that were $30 at face value for close to $200. This exhibits the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ starpower, but also their cult status in NYC, the city that birthed a punk-rock band fronted by a cute, fiesty blonde chick in 2003. In 2013, their importance is marked by what they helped spawn, and Mosquito is the first step toward what the next ten years will bring for them. Preorder Mosquito here
See Photos of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Webster Hall on 4/7/2013
2. Gold Lion
3. Under the Earth
5. Black Tongue
7. Cheated Hearts
8. Soft Shock
9. Wedding Song
11. Turn Into
13. Miles Away
14. Heads Will Roll
16. Date with the Night