Features | Concerts

Russian Futurists / Junior Boys / Caribou

By Amir Nezar | 14 May 2005

Despite being home to one of the best indie music stores I’ve ever been to (Plan 9), I don’t know of a college campus that would strike one offhand as less “indie” than that of UVA (ok, so maybe a couple). Southern gentry, huge Greek life, North Face jackets, conservative students?

Sounds like the perfect setting for a bunch of unknown Toronto bands to land in.

But as luck would have it, The Russian Futurists, Junior Boys, and Caribou skipped the 9:30 Club in DC, the Black Cat in Richmond, and Maryland altogether - and they chose to play in a tiny venue (the Plan 9-sponsored Satellite Ballroom) that’s been open for hardly a year, for -- I shit you not -- a $9 admission charge. I don’t know whether the piss-poor advertising or the piss-poor music taste of the general UVA student body accounted for the fact that only 50 of at least 300 possible tickets were sold in advance, but I couldn’t give a shit; I was there. Whether the scant sales would mean a poor showing was another matter altogether. Then again, playing a concert during finals weeks was probably a bad selling point, too. I only found out about the concert two days in advance.

But as much as we silly, ignorant Americans joke about invading “those crazy Canucks,” these bands went fucking Normandy on our asses. OK, so maybe not the Russian Futurists, but why don’t I shut up with the introduction and get to the goods?

The Russian Futurists

While they played an admirable set with decently faithful reproduction (production-wise) of their synthy pop, The Russian Futurists got the short end of the toothpick. As the first of three sets, not only were they the least heard-of of these bands, they got on stage with no more than a few dozen crowd members up front, and a mild buzz way in the back of the bar.

That they looked like they could be your average next-door neighbors did little for their stage presence, and with all four band members scrunched up at the front of the stage with barely any elbow room, TRF looked like a group of dudes genuinely pleased to be playing at any venue. It enhanced their general affable quality, but it didn’t make for very good crowd-influence (we indie kids will only respect you if you make it clear that you’re better than us).

They did try to get the kids into it, though, playing a mix of new and old songs, all of them with a signature thumping programmed danceable beat. Alas! the only converts were a small cadre of overenthusiastic kids on one side of the inauspiciously vast floor, and one plumpcake who for some reason completely lost her shit while listening to their buoyant pop. Nonetheless, their actual music was solid; highlights “Let’s Get Ready to Crumble,” and the melt-your-heart “It’s Not Really Cold When it Snows” showcased their energy and infectious hooks best, as the band flew through their nugget-sized pop treats. No real surprises, a new song or two, and clean execution made them a thoroughly enjoyable, if not really inspiring, first act.

The Junior Boys

But holy fucking shit, let’s talk about the Junior Boys, who played the single most unexpectedly inspirational set I may have ever seen. Fans familiar with their phenomenal debut, Last Exit, would likely find themselves in the same shoes of expectation that I was in; at the beginning of the set I slid myself down the side of one of the venue’s walls with a drink and prepared to be chilled out.

The duo wasn’t going to have any of that. They deepened their bass beats ‘til the ceiling rivets shook, and Jeremy Greenspan and cohort Johnny Dark absolutely tore the floor out of the place. Greenspan, a slightly plump figure who looks nothing like his dashingly sexy voice would suggest, dressed in a sailor’s hat (“I feel like I’m in Jet, or something” he joked) that he abhorred, took the audience in his nimble fingers and yanked them around booty-wise in a way that I don’t think a single person in the audience expected. Against a backdrop of swirling sky- and cityscapes, the two played an unbelievable set of brand new and familiar tunes that ended about two hours sooner than anyone would have wished (it was about an hour long).

With an album as clearly and carefully planned as Last Exit, perhaps one of the last things that you’d expect from the Junior Boys would be significant improvisation. But improvise they did, extending already fantastic songs like “Teach Me How to Fight” past their album-lengths, fucking with bass lines to make them more groovy (and some of the live hooks Greenspan came up with were riveting), and injecting as much guitar and bass glory into their songs as synths and programmed beats. The group not only stuck with the excellent space and tension of their album tracks, but often created new passages within familiar songs that they then closed out with brilliant catharses.

Perhaps even more exciting, their new material translated into a nearly holy live experience, Greenspan occasionally taking to his six-string like a dervish while Dark held down the fort with quiet panache. After their opening song, a brand new one, Greenspan beckoned to the crowd to come closer, to get a few inches of movement in response. He then more forcefully insisted, “No seriously, guys, get up here, come on up,” and slowly the sluggish crowd came to life, believing for more than a few moments that they might have stumbled onto the best dance party that hardly anyone knew about. By the end of the set (they closed with a terrific rendition of “Under the Sun”) Greenspan was sweating, and so was I, with chills to boot, gushing to a friend of mine who I’d brought with me. At this point, in terms of money-spent to enjoyment-gained ratio, this was already one of the better concerts I had ever seen.

Caribou

And then Caribou pulled out all the stops. While the charge of Dan Snaith’s live show was less of a shock than the Junior Boys’ thunderclap of a set, nothing could diminish the sheer power that Snaith and his two co-instrumentalists brought to bear. Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever been so astounded by the percussive fury that their double-drummer setup created. My friend Eric nudged me halfway through the set and pointed up to the ceiling - any hanging implement that was attached to it was shaking. And where The Russian Futurists had only gotten a few awkward over-enthusiasts to dance, and while the Junior Boys had gotten an energetic club groove going, dozens of audience members went positively apeshit to both new Caribou songs and old Manitoba renditions. I might have, too, if I wasn’t so transfixed by the sheer amount of skill, verve, and coordination required to pull off so many of the double-drum maneuvers that the trio released like a tribal elephant through the Ballroom.

“Tribal” really is the word to express the quality of the power of Caribou’s set; with very few discernible lyrics, a kind of primitive cartoon-saga enacted on the screen behind them, and a smorgasbord of instruments - from melodeon to electric guitar - Caribou played like a tribal storm. Familiar songs underwent unexpected variations, band members were all over the place to put together seamless transitions with an improbable numbers of instruments, and it was all undeniably exhilarating.

And then, at the end of their set, something unexpected happened, something that really cemented the almost shockingly good quality of the concert, and my respect for these musicians: technical problems. It wasn’t the technical problems themselves that were moving, obviously, but rather, what was moving was the band’s dedication to overcoming them. Their electric guitar cutting out, their instrument connections wavering, Snaith and his fellow drummer looked over at the mixing board with a look of confusion as they pounded out a lethal drumming climax - you could see something was wrong. And yet, rather than simply finish their set right then and there, Snaith and Co. actually waited for the problems to be resolved, and despite their palpable exhaustion (their drumming energy was superhuman, but they were visibly drained), actually set up another climax that would finish off the set the way they wanted to. And boy did they do it. With nearly half of the audience in dancing fits that bordered on the epileptic, they smashed their way home, and gave the few people that made it out to see them what they wanted.

Respect, men. Respect. I can’t remember the last time a measly $9 brought me so much joy.