April 27, 2004

TV on the Radio takes its place among the greats at the venerable Fireside

On paper, the Fireside Bowl is a terrible venue. In person, it's worse.

A Chicago legend that is, by day, a beat-up Naugahyde nightmare of a bowling alley/seedy lounge straight out of the bowels of the '70s, the Fireside transforms under the cover of night into an all-ages concert venue—successfully combining the short-comings of both types of venues into one massively improbable structure.

The concert area is tiny, consisting of the thin sliver of floor in between the lanes and the wall. Stranded out in the midst of the West Side jungle, the Fireside is almost inaccessible by public transportation, and it smells vaguely like a hobo encampment. The beer is always flat and warm; the bartenders are always surly. While the bathrooms are clean, there's always a rather loud conference on human sexuality going on in one of the back stalls. And, as a rule, the brash sound system gives everyone within its battered doors a headache that lingers for days.

However, when going to see great rock bands, nothing quite compares with the history and the ambiance of the Fireside. It is here, not within the accursed confines of the Metro or the Double Door, that the Chicago punk scene was spawned in the early '80s. And once one falls in love with the scruffy, low-fidelity charm of the Fireside, it's easy to see why people often reminisce about past shows there.

Over to the left of the lounge, you can see where such luminaries as Sewercap and the Vindictives cut class as teens. Behind the stage, you can almost envision Screeching Weasel playing their infamous "naked show." And if you were lucky enough to attend the sold-out performance of TV on the Radio last week, you can add that show to the future retellings of the Fireside legend.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I arrived just in time to catch the first set by a local combo with a moderately odd sobriquet. Calling themselves ZZZZ, these local boys and girls were busily setting up a bank of keyboards next to the drum kit when I arrived. However, it was the appearance of the saxophone player that truly caught my eye. In my experience, reed players can either make or break a band—more often the latter than the former. If you don't believe me, just go listen to a third-rate ska band.

After a brief introduction, ZZZZ launched into a set of songs peppered with echoing klezmer sax riffs, spastic basslines, and some eerily detached vocals courtesy of the keyboard player. While not exactly the most crowd-friendly opening set, ZZZZ was at least odd enough to warrant a second look the next time they play live.

Following the brief post-set interlude, Apollo Heights took the stage. Completely unknown to me, I was pleasantly surprised by their surprisingly soulful set, featuring soaring Bowie-esque vocals over atmospheric backing grooves.

Unfortunately for Apollo Heights, most of the audience had come for one band and one band only: TV on the Radio. The stock on this New York five-piece has risen dramatically over the last few months following the fuzzed-out fury of their brilliant debut EP Young Liars and their solid follow-up album Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, and deservedly so. If great songs were atom bombs, these cats would be the apocalypse.

"It's time to stop fucking around," declared frontman Tunde Adebimpe, taking the stage and throwing the mike stand away. Someone shouted for something loud and fast, another for something soft and sweet. Adebimpe smiled and promised "some soft songs played hard."

And suddenly, at some unnoticed signal, the rest of the band roared to life, tearing into their new single "Staring at the Sun" with a ferocity generally reserved for industrial machinery. Fuzzed guitars slashed, the drums rattled like trains, and through it all Adebimpe sang. He was crooning, sliding into a Motown falsetto with eyes closed, as he bounced and hopped, veering around the stage like some demented rabbit.

In the heat and claustrophobic tightness of the crowd, I stood sweating, unsure of how to respond. Do I do the indie-rock head-nod? Should I shimmy, perhaps shake? To my right, I could feel someone or something moving. I tore my eyes away from the band for a split second, and blinked. It looked like the whole damn crowd was leaping like broken springs.

And then, before I knew it, I too was bouncing up and down, singing at the top of my lungs in the hot, humid air. For 45 glorious minutes, TV on the Radio forced the Fireside to sweat and bump and sing. Songs blurred together, becoming one massive stretch of pure rock 'n' roll ecstasy as we danced.

It was not until the overworked P.A. began to spit and crackle that the illusion began to crumble. Only able to do one last song for fear of destroying the P.A. system entirely, TV on the Radio was obliged to cut the set short as further testament to life's fundamental unfairness.

The lights slowly came up as we filed out, nursing our ringing ears and rubbery legs. Two blocks later, sitting on the hood of my car, I was watching the streetlights when I started to giggle.

Only in the city of Chicago will people refuse to dance anywhere but a bowling alley.