April 24th, 2009 5:33 pm | by Music | Posted In: Live Cuts

Live Review: Cold War Kids, Thursday, April 23 @ Doug Fir

coldwarkids[Dear readers: We were all drunk and when we wrote, edited and "fact checked" this piece, hence the mistakes listed in the comments section (which was having technical problems as of the time of this apology note). The bunk photo (now removed) was my fault, not Andy's. I'm going to leave the other mistakes intact to prove what idiots we are, and more specifically, I am. I promise we only messed this up because we were working on a big surprise for your birthday and our minds were on that. Apologies, Ed.]

On the compact stage at the Doug Fir, Cold War Kids guitarist Jonnie Russell and bassist Matt Maust were pinballs draped in old t-shirts. The duo lumbered energetically back and forth across the stage, bumping into one another, smashing into posturing singer Nathan Willett, bouncing off the venue's sight-restricting pillars, ricocheting the drum kit—anything within eyeshot became a bumper. The only thing missing during the sold-out set was a gigantic scoreboard hovering above the stage.

It's easy to understand why the band was on such a collision course. Since hitting it big with “All Mixed Up” a couple years back, Cold War Kids have been sharing some of the biggest stages in the world with the likes of Beck and The White Stripes. Last fall, the band hit the stage at the Crystal Ballroom with Franz Ferdinand. The members had ample room to dash around the stage, make weird faces, fling their instruments around and generally cruise around like Mick Jagger without a catwalk.

The Doug Fir stage, however, is like a closet in comparison, which was all the charm of the show. Northern California's Cold War Kids is on the cusp of blowing up big, with its energetic mix of soul, rock, darkness, blues and straight-up melodic innovation. Willett voice carries the band in its ghostly uniqueness: he looks like a heavily-tatted frat boy, but his voice is all over the board, sometimes sounding like a less drug-addled Shannon Hoon, sometimes the lost child of Janis Joplin and Jack White, a beast who fled the choir to sing mournful ballads, psychedelic pop and good old-fashioned rock and roll. With Russell and Maust bringing the energy and drummer Matt Aveiro in the pocket, the band is a solid unit, one that is poised to go to bigger places on its own based of the strength of two solid albums, Robbers & Cowards and Loyalty to Loyalty.

It took the band a minute to hit its stride at the Doug Fir, opening with the rollicking “Mexican Darts” and playing a half-hearted version of its well-known “Something is Not Right With Me,” a song with an infectiously bounding bassline and a vocal hook that lodges itself in the brain instantly. But the band hit its stride about tree songs in, and Willett's face eventually ceased to be contorted into a pissed-off looking grimace as he started to actually enjoy himself, darting back and forth between the synthesizer, the piano, and the guitar. As the band performed the mandatory “All Mixed Up” halfway through the set, a shrill chorus of “Hang me out to dry” erupted from the audience, piercing eardrums as average joes tried to hit notes that nobody except Willett, Chris Cornell, castrati and cherubs should attempt. Meanwhile, Maust proved to be the touchy-feeliest bass player in the world, cruising around, bumping foreheads with Russell, going back-to-back with Willett and hovering over Aveiro's drum kit in a nod to the classic days of buttrock bromance.

From there on, the band lost the interest of those who can't deal with songs they don't know, slowing it down with the somber “Golden Gate Jumpers” and other coolouts before finishing the show with the exceptionally broody and haunting “Hospital Beds.”

For the mandatory two-song encore, Cold War Kids decided to treat its audience to a little taste of irony with Robbers & Cowards opening track, “We Used to Vacation.” The song, with its driving melody prodded on by staggered piano, is a moody one, and perhaps the band's best and most complex. Lyrically, it tells the tale of an alcoholic father who has a difficult time providing for his family while paying bar tabs, getting into car accidents, skipping AA meetings, and generally ruining his life. But damned if every time the band got to its lucid chorus of “I promised to my wife and children/I'd never touch another drink as long as I live” a sea of fists clutching PBR bottles didn't rise into the air as a swaying audience sang along, doubtless getting ready to get into cars even as Willett sang of life-shattering addiction.

Then, for the sing-songy gospel chant “Saint John,” it was back to pinball mode, with the band exploding with the kind of kinetic energy that reinforced the fact that the group is rising. The raw, visceral need of its members to rocket across the stage, devil may cry, is a force to be reckoned with, something generally reserved for punk bands but here exploding out of what is essentially an arty take on indie pop. In a few years, Cold War Kids could well be taking the bigger stages without riding the coattails of giants, effectively turning the band's game of pinball into a game of golf…which makes a small-stage show at the likes of the Doug Fir all the more satisfying.

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