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November 6, 2001

Stereolab raises the bar

Before a packed Mandel Hall Friday night, Stereolab blended a diachronic setlist for screaming and dancing fans in MAB's first concert of the school year. Stereolab, an English/French sextet with deep roots in Chicago, was playing for the second time in a week, having played on Halloween night at the Vic, and the home-field advantage was not always completely obvious, especially when at moments it seemed as though the reaction to opening guests Quasi was more inviting.

Quasi, who began a stretch of shows with Stereolab starting this weekend, seemed to get a lot of warmth from the crowd. Made up of Sam Coomes and Janet Weiss (no, not played by Susan Sarandon), of Sleater-Kinney, this Portland duo managed a really full and loud sound based largely on the wild and cheesed distortion Coomes attaches to his keyboard. The tone was rich and almost overwhelming — he used his keyboard more like a rock anthem lead guitar. Weiss accompanied capably on drums and keyboards herself, but it seemed as though their aspect of the set was carried on Coomes's personality.

The band, surprisingly prolific, performed a series of approachable pop tunes, before disintegrating in the middle of a botched cover. They closed the set out with a raucous closing track featuring Coomes' crawling, literally, over his keyboard. The crowd loved it, as one true believer even presented Sam with a letter between songs.

After their set ended, however, it was time for the 'Lab to come demonstrate serious crowd control. As mentioned above, Chicago is almost a second home for the band — they've recorded their last few albums here and are constantly mentioned in the same breath as a lot of local sound pioneers (namely Jim O'Rourke and John McEntire, if you're keeping score at home). Additionally, local label Drag City released Stereolab's singles-and-other-things collection Aluminum Tunes in 1998. In short, it was reasonable to expect a wild crowd and a performance to match. In some ways, both aspects were accomplished.

Half of the group's songs on Friday were from their new release Sound-Dust, a marvelous LP which has reconnected the band back to their moments of greatness, the mid-'90s wonders Emperor Tomato Ketchup and Dots and Loops. It seems logical, then, that the concert was filled out with songs from that era. The second song of the night, for example, was the oddly-timed "Percolator," from Emperor Tomato Ketchup, which provided the chance for Laetitia Sadier's ethereal French lilting to shoot out over Mary Hansen's vocals, held in check by guitarist Tim Gane's incessant head-shaking (his hair would not flop quite in time with the music, creating an odd effect for those trying to dance along with his shaking). "Les Yper-Sound," another big hit from a few years ago, also appealed to the crowd weaned on the 'Lab's earlier work. A nod to the old fans also came from the uncovering of "Ping Pong" from 1994's Mars Audiac Quintet, when the band was almost a completely different animal. "Parsec," from 1997's Dots and Loops filled out the teases to the true believers — though it should be recognizable as the song from the "Less Flower, More Power" VW Beetle commercials. "Parsec," like "Percolator," relies on a complex rhythm which the band carried through effortlessly; on the album, "Parsec" is a drum n bass track. Live, it's a treat of complexity matched by a well-timed light show.

The newer songs, however, performed a bit more raw, with a bit more sloppiness apparent. This was truly a shame, of course, since the new songs are, almost without exception, absolutely great. But they are also extremely complicated. "Captain Easychord," for example, the big, new hit off Sound-Dust, turns mood twice on a dime before drifting into a nearly completely different song altogether, including measures featuring a steel guitar (replaced by heavy portamento on a keyboard this time around). "Spacemoth," the penultimate cut performed, has the same kinds of quick switches which at times left the band a bit off. At least once Hansen, on tambourine, had to turn back and nod out the tempo with her head to the rhythm section. "Spacemoth," like "Nought More Terrific Than Man," also featured Sadier on trombone — filling in for the work done on Sound-Dust by Chicagoan Jeb Bishop. The trombone, a new piece of the Stereolab live show, brought hoots and cheers from the crowd, so it's obviously something the band should consider making a permanent part of the act, even retroactively arranging parts from earlier songs. The band closed with "Les Bons Bons des Raisons," the last track of the new LP, but injected a new vitality to the second part of the song which carried the band into the encore, Emperor Tomato Ketchup's opening track and Stereolab superhit "Metronomic Underground." The encore stretched and grew more and more forceful (this said by a reviewer literally resting his head against the left wall of speakers), until it slipped into a song referred to as "Émile" by the band's manager.

Stereolab are typically sharp and fun live, and their performance at Mandel Hall was definitely fun. At one point Sadier remarked how surprised she was at how quiet a Chicago crowd was being — the crowd took on the challenge and heavy cheers followed the rest of the set's offerings. Once the 'Lab gets the hang of the wild changes in their new material, they should again be as thrilling as before. In the meantime, MAB should continue bringing acts with such local appeal to continue maintaining the brand's integrity. Their first show was a big success, and the rest of the year will have a tough time keeping up with Friday's show.