The Riviera is an enormous venue, and the fact that it was completely packed on Friday night is a testament to how far Spoon have come. Just five months ago they were performing at Hutchinson Courtyard, asking undergrads for weed at the end of their set. Now, fresh off the success of July’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, they’ve sold out Riviera at the same speed Nirvana did in the early ’90s.
Until recently, the common line in the press on Spoon was that they’d quietly put together one of the best rock catalogs of the decade. On Friday, facing quite possibly the largest crowd of their career, it was readily apparent that the secret was out. Yet, as the band’s uneven, poorly managed performance indicated, the band is experiencing some growing pains in its transition from indie darlings to top 10–charting rock stars. Ultimately, however, they managed to appease fans while showing signs of improvement as a live band.
It was clear early on in the night that whoever was in charge did not understand how to manage a show of that caliber. Security seemed unsure when to stop letting people on the floor, and a section of reserved balcony seats remained half-empty while fans who showed up late had to resort to nosebleeds. There were constant sound problems during Spoon’s set, resulting in a couple of songs ending prematurely.
Perhaps the worst decision was to treat the opening band, the Ponys, like just any opening band. The Ponys are a better live band than Spoon and arguably Chicago’s best current rock band, and it was a shame to see them get less than the hometown treatment—a 40-minute set, played to a crowd still getting settled.
As for Spoon themselves, it was obvious from the get-go that they were pretty intimidated, a fact they later confirmed during the encore. There was little crowd banter, and when it did occur it sounded as awkward as a U of C male trying to flirt (maybe they picked that up while scoring hash at Hutch). Guitarist/vocalist Britt Daniel seemed ghostly pale for the first half hour, and bassist Rob Pope, a veteran of The Get Up Kids, almost seemed like he was trying to hide from the crowd.
As luck would have it, sound issues caused the volume to increase at an arbitrary point in the middle of “Jonathan Fisk,” a hit from 2001’s Kill the Moonlight. Not coincidentally, once things got louder, the band got better.
Part of the problem at first was that Spoon seemed like they were trying too hard to make their rather small, easily digestible harmonies seem bigger. They used elaborate lighting that was a bit too cute, and tried mixing things up—for example, turning “Small Stakes” into a percussion-driven rocker, adding brass, and varying the tempos of some of their biggest hits.
All in all, the modifications were a mixed bag, but by the second half of the set, Spoon began to realize why their fans had paid the price of admission: life-affirming melodies, smart personal lyrics, and a deep love of rock’s past that manages to avoid nostalgia. When they got to some of the hits off of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, like “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog,” Spoon finally started to sound like Spoon.
Even though Spoon showed definite room for improvement at playing venues this size (and they’ll have a lot of experience after this tour), I still believe they will always be primarily a studio band. Their harmonies and production are so pinpoint perfect on just about all their albums that not even the most inspired performance could translate their greatest strengths.
They’re in good company in this regard: the Beatles, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys, all obvious influences on Spoon, were not the most compelling live bands despite being among the greatest recording artists of the 20th century. Their catalog is too deep and diverse to prevent their fans from enjoying themselves; however, if someone had come to the Riviera who had never heard Spoon before, it would be hard to see what all the fuss was about.
You’d only hope that no one would be stupid enough to stop judging Spoon there.