Features | Concerts

Interpol / Secret Machines / Calla

By Amir Nezar | 20 November 2004

So I was late to both of these concerts, missing On! Air! Library! at the 9:30 club in DC, and some…band that was playing before Calla at the Hammerstein Ballroom.

I was greatly curious to see what had happened to “touring Interpol” in the two years that have elapsed since I last saw them. Following the release of what was (in my own opinion, in addition to that of a number of others) the best album of 2002, Turn on the Bright Lights, Interpol’s concert experience was a cathartic one. But not because of Interpol’s live renditions being particularly improvisational or energetic; the band stood relatively still in their places, with Carlos D wandering around in his spidery manner, and played their songs exactly as they were on the album. Of course, the album’s songs were so stunning that Interpol’s perfect replication translated into a compelling, emotional release (at immense, orchestral volumes, no less).

As circumstances unfolded themselves (in a manner not needing particular elaboration), I found myself and my girlfriend having tickets to see Interpol in DC, and, as a sweet birthday present from the girlfriend, in their home town of New York City. As a bonus, the opening acts were different for each show; the Secret Machines would make an appearance in DC, and Calla, who’ve been relatively incognito for the past year and a half, would do opening duties in NYC.

The Secret Machines

The Secret Machines, for their part, played a fantastic live set. In addition to nailing and even improvising on the tunes from their excellent new Now Here is Nowhere the crowd was blessed, already, with two new, unrecorded tracks, both of which only point to better things for the Texas-by-NY band.

Their stage presence was already relatively honed for a group somewhat new to touring; on a background of unevenly placed, immensely bright lights that looked something like searchlights, they re-enacted their beautiful paranoiac songs with aplomb and verve. Ben Curtis took center stage with his effects-heavy electric, making him the sole band member who wasn’t seated at his instrument. Josh Garza, at his monolithic drum kit, Slash-big-hair bobbing with his reliable pacing, attacked his drum kit with mechanical precision, while the other half of the B.C. brothers, Brandon, took care of keyboard and vocal duties with gusto and panache. But it was really Ben Curtis who shone in terms of his performance, pounding an immense amount of passion and unwieldiness into his guitar, at times careening about the stage as if he were under fire from the agents that haunt Now Here is Nowhere.

“First Wave Intact,” which the band smartly opened with, powered forward on its thunderous rhythm, Ben snaking his guitar lines into what were vacant spaces on the studio version of the song, Garza positively obliterating his kit at the song’s immense conclusion. The band also did a ferocious rendition of “Sad and Lonely,” though the precision of the studio version was somewhat lost in Ben Curtis’s furious strumming. From their September 000 EP, they wonderfully recreated both “It’s A Bad Wind that Don’t Blow Somebody Some Good,” and “Still See You,” that album’s official heart-breaker, with “Still See You”’s short-lived melodic climax hitting a high note for the set.

But the most rewarding performances were of two as-yet unheard of tracks from The Secret Machines; I have no names for them, but they were of a melodic and compositional quality that exceeded even some of the highest highs in the band’s catalogue. One in particular moved from a sublime alternating chord-progression in its verses to heaven-shattering choruses, and, in a relatively short duration, to a powerhouse of a conclusion.

Most striking of all was the feeling that The Secret Machines didn’t feel at all like an opening act for Interpol---they merely seemed contemporaries who happened to play on the same night. And given both bands’ almost identical set lengths, and the obvious amount of respect between them, it seems only a matter of time before The Secret Machines are headlining their own tours---catch them now while they’re hungry and fantastic.

Calla

Calla, in Manhattan, at the Hammerstein Ballroom, were the most remarkable of the three acts in terms of sheer sonic evolution. The last concert appearance of Calla that I witnessed (again, opening for Interpol at the 9:30 Club), was of a small outfit: Aurelio Valle (vocalist and guitarist), Wayne Magruder (drums), and Sean Donovan (bass and keyboards). In part I couldn’t help but feel that Calla were self-limiting; with such a small number of band members, it seemed that the only reason they couldn’t create more moving, energetic songs was that their very band dynamic required slower, more meditative, more sparsely instrumental tunes. Not that they didn’t do it well; but their heavy tension was certainly not a liberating experience in concert; but contrast, Interpol (back then), came on like a jet of hot steam.

Well, Calla has undergone some changes – with the addition of a brand new guitarist, whom they do not name on their site, Calla’s new album (out next year) promises to be ferocious. Gone is a great deal of the plaintive meditation of Scavengers and Televise. In its place resounds a frequently immense monster of melodic thunder, though Calla have smartly retained their haunting melodic turns, even as they build them into monolithic cathartic beasts. Consequently, their concert presence this time around was fucking huge.

There are always some adverse potentialities to becoming fucking huge, however. While Calla’s immense enfolding panorama of just-barely-moaned desolation atop heavy guitars was immediately satisfying, it exposed what may turn out to be some worrisome flaws in their upcoming material. Primary among them was the band’s penchant to overextend some of their bombastic conclusions----in the worst case their closing song went on for what seemed at least five minutes of sheer repetitive noise.

Nevertheless, whatever guitar hysterics may or may not appear on their future efforts, their performance was positively crackling with energy and lust, and the crowd responded in kind, for the most part. If you’ve seen them before, grabbing concert tix sometime in the near future would be worthwhile if only to see how much more effective and affecting they are on the stage now.

Interpol

Which brings us to the act that performed at both occasions, the band whose album I remain convinced of being the best of the year---and there’s only a month left, people. Now, it’s worthy of note that Interpol are currently my favorite band going---therefore my expectations for the concert experience of Interpol is going to be untenably high.

The uniqueness of this particular concert review lies in its being an account of two shows seen within the same week, from the same band. As a result, a comparative, and not entirely flattering light, was thrown on my experience of the band’s concerts.

First, the set list was almost exactly the same at both concerts. Excepting the inclusion of “Roland,” and perhaps one other song at the Hammerstein---extending the New York concert some ten minutes beyond the duration of that in DC---every track the band played was the same. A few songs were reorganized in their sequencing, but if I remember correctly, at both concerts the band played---from Turn on the Bright Lights---“Obstacle 1,” “NYC,” “Say Hello to the Angels,” “PDA,” “Hands Away,” and “Leif Erikson,” and---from Antics---“Next Exit” (the opener both times), “Evil,” “Narc,” “Slow Hands,” “Not Even Jail,” “Public Pervert,” and “Length of Love.” Longtime favorite “The Specialist” unfortunately did not make an appearance. Of course, a near-identical set list at both concerts shouldn’t come as a surprise; Interpol have only recorded in LP format a little over and hour and a half of music.

The downer of a comparison is, then, the second: Interpol’s affectations tend to be exactly the same at their concerts. Paul Banks kneeled at the mic during specific songs at both concerts, the band members tended to follow similar movements across the stage (we’re talking Daniel Kessler and Carlos D, primarily, though Paul Banks did occasionally move closer to Kessler for interactive guitar parts, and even back to the flawless Sam Fogarino). Carlos D even smoked a cigarette during his playing at exactly the same moment in the two concerts. Now, for a band’s affectations to be virtually identical between concerts has little to do with how their music actually sounds – in fact, it has nothing to do with it at all. But it does have a particular effect on the concert experience itself, and the feeling that the band may be following a scripted pattern is never a particularly welcome one.

That said, the New York show did bear one obvious advantage over the one in DC: it was positively electric in terms of its band-to-crowd (and vice-versa) energy. In DC Interpol came across as seasoned professionals at the touring game – in New York the idolization of the band positively flowed on stage, and the band responded in kind---their movements, even the scripted ones, had more bounce, energy, and vivacity. At NY, Kessler looked utterly stoned, and whether it was because he was indeed on some drug or another, or whether he was simply thrown into a natural high by the crowd’s response wasn’t particularly clear---but the latter conclusion seems as plausible as the first. Carlos D, changing his tie color to red in NY, stomped around the stage, holding his bass guitar aloft like an insect parading the sounds of doomed romanticism. And finally, the lighting at the far grander Hammerstein dwarfed the comparatively puny lighting effects at the 9:30 club, as did the Ballroom’s monolithic sound system.

As for the music---as if it really needs to be driven home---it was phenomenal. The renditions of each one of the songs I’ve mentioned were nearly perfect, with Banks flubbing only an occasional guitar-chord (thought he was spot on his vocal melodies---a clear improvement in terms of confidence).

“Hands Away” in particular was striking because of the completely altered bass line that made an appearance in both concerts. Moving away from the more synth-dominated version that they played two years ago, the new version of the song flexed a great deal more guitar-meat on its bones, transforming it from a pretty interlude into a genuinely moving, complete track. “Evil”’s reenactment was a reliable crowd pleaser as Kessler smashed into his guitar line with powerhouse intent, and “Not Even Jail” retained its recorded version’s majestic scope, scorching through its two movements in a blaze of beautiful guitar lines.

The highlight of both concerts, however, was “PDA,” which the band executed with effortless gusto, knowing full well that it was perhaps the most beloved song in their catalog---they even allowed an extended space to yawn at the signature space between two of the song’s verses. The DC crowd shouted and whistled, and the New Yorkers lost their shit entirely. Moving into one of the best codas of the band’s career, they polished it off as the closer in DC to immense effect, and nailed it airtight in their NY performance.

My girlfriend remarked, astutely (and I paraphrase): “Wow, they sound like they do on their album---which is impressive, because a lot of bands record songs that they can’t really knock down in concert. But you can tell that Interpol know what they’re doing because the songs they play on their album are the songs they play in concert, perfectly reproduced.” I agreed heartily; what some critics label “sticking to the book,” (in the pejorative sense), I, and my girlfriend saw as an ability to keep remarkable instrumental arrangements differentiated and clean – something which Calla did not do so well, and which even the Secret Machines occasionally cluttered.

No new songs debuted at the concerts, but hey, these guys tend to be slow about producing new ones. You, however, should be quick to grab some tickets and check out the finely-honed touring machine that is Interpol before they release their next album and start charging Bono-prices for their shows. Well, scratch that. If the past three years are any indicator, you’ll have plenty of time to catch Interpol on one of their next, oh, four world tours.