As the sun set behind McMenamin's Edgefield last Saturday, TV on the Radio began to pound out the insistent, galloping rhythm of its most popular song, “Wolf Like Me.” In seconds, a mosh pit had broken out. Kids started fighting. A woman in a flouncy blue dress twisted her knee in the mayhem and had to be helped out of the crowd.
This is a TV On the Radio concert in 2011.
That probably wouldn't have been the scene back in 2006, when “Wolf Like Me” and the album it came from, Return to Cookie Mountain, were first released. In fact, I know it wasn't. When I saw the band perform at the Troubadour in L.A. that year, the reaction was sort of what you'd expect out of an audience watching a buzzed-about group touring in advance of its anticipated second album: A lot of cross-armed head-nodding from a room of curious journalists and Hollywood hipsters. To go from that to playing for an enthusiastic bunch of teenagers, neo hippie-ravers and older NPR subscribers at an outdoor venue with a 9:30 p.m. curfew shows just how far the band has traveled since. Some might argue it's drifted toward the middle, away from the art-rock complexities of Cookie Mountain and its first full-length album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes, but in truth, the middle has to come them. Its music has matured, focused and become more easily digestible in the last five years, but it's never gotten boring.
And besides, beneath all its textural accouterments and odd song structures, TV on the Radio has always just been a great fucking rock band. It proved that fact throughout its 90-minute set at Edgefield. Opening with the buzzing tidal wave of “Halfway Home,” from 2008's art-funk masterpiece Dear Science, then rolling through the double-time blitz of Desperate Youth's “Wrong Way” and the raging “Caffeinated Consciousness,” the INXS-aping closer of this year's Nine Types of Light, it appeared early on the band was in rave-up mode. But across its last two records (particularly the new one), TVOTR have proven to be surprisingly adept balladeers, and some of the show's best moments were the most reserved. “Will Do,” about as straight-forward a love song as these guys have ever done, and singer-guitarist Kyp Malone's equally romantic “Keep Your Heart” soared with sublime elegance.
Even in those more tender instances, TVOTR made on its pedigree as a band of sonic architects. Guitarist Dave Sitek continually sawed at his instrument, enveloping each song in a distorted hum. When he wasn't pacing the stage, singer Tunde Adebimpe pinned himself behind a board of effects pedals. And it quickly became apparent that the band's touring trombonist wasn't there for melodic horn stabs, but to add to the wall of sound. Everything coalesced on the finishing one-two punch of “Repetition” and “Wolf Like Me,” the latter's bulldozing charge erupting out of the clatter of the former. It's been a rough few months for TV on the Radio—bassist Gerard Smith succumbed to lung cancer in April at age 36—but in Portland (OK, Troutdale), there was little doubt that this is still one of the most consistently exciting bands of the last decade.