TV on the Radio Return to the (small) Stage, The Independent SF, May 9th, 2011

TV on the Radio suffered a great loss when bassist Gerard Smith died of cancer last month.  Even though Smith wasn’t on the current Nine Types of Light Tour, he was a big contributor to the album and a close friend to everyone in the band.  So it only made sense when they cancelled a string of dates after the announcement of his passing.  One of those dates happened to be their only Colorado stop at The Ogden.  As disappointed as I was when I heard the news, I couldn’t help but feel for the band and count myself lucky to have been able to see the line-up with Smith in years past.

My first live TVOTR experience was a sold-out show at The Fillmore in San Francisco.  This was back in March of 2007 and I still remember trying to get my girlfriend a ticket from scalpers out front.  That didn’t work out, so I ended up walking into venue right after putting her in a cab.  Sorry, but we had only been dating a couple months and my relationship with the art/alt rock band from Brooklyn was a little stronger than my relationship with her.   And looking back 4 years later I know I made the right choice!  I don’t know where she is these days but I still have my connection with the band who blew up not long after selling out two nights in a row at that iconic music venue.

The second time I saw TVOTR was at The Ogden Theatre.  In fact, it was my very first show in Denver after moving here back in October 2008.  The moving trucks hadn’t shown up yet and we were still lost in a foreign neighborhood, city and house, but we managed to get down to Colfax and catch another amazing show from this band that just can’t recreate that sound on album.  Both of those shows provided something very physical and moving, something so much more than the albums (that were great in their own way). It might sound cheesy, but  I have never been to another show where it was more appropriate to howl like a wolf.   Hundreds of shows later I can still say with conviction that Wolf Like Me is one of the best live songs ever.

So you can imagine my excitement when I found out I would be back in San Francisco for work the very night TV on the Radio were going to return to the stage.  And this wasn’t just any stage…it was The Independent.  The boys from Brooklyn sold-out two nights in as many minutes at the venue I used to walk to multiple times a week…the venue that holds less than 1,000 people.  One of my favorite live bands, playing one of my favorite venues in one of my favorite cities.  My expectations were so high that there was no way I wasn’t going to be disappointed.

My first reaction when I walked into The Independent was to the new decor.  The little dive on Divis had gone all fancy ‘n shit.  New paint, lights, decorations of all kinds…even the bathrooms had been updated.  Then I noticed that the place wasn’t that crowded.  I had really expected to be packed in there like sardines, so it was a nice surprise that even by the end of the night we still had elbow room.  My next reaction was to the opening band, IO ECHO.  I was immediately attracted to the lead singer’s voice and movement on stage, she reminded me a lot of Zola Jesus, but the band was great as well, in a shoegazey sorta way.  I thoroughly enjoyed this substitution for Glasser even if (as my buddy pointed out) most of the songs did sound the same.

TV on the Radio took the stage around 10:40pm with Young Liars from the EP of the same name.  Very strong start with one of my favorite songs.  The fact that I love that song so much made it so I didn’t realize something was off until The Wrong Way (a song I don’t really care for).  The sound wasn’t as strong as the last couple times I saw them.  This continued for the next hour or so through the main set.  It was a great balance of material new and old and with just as many 8 year old songs as brand new songs I doubt anyone could complain about the setlist.  But there was something missing in the power of the show.  I couldn’t find the missing piece in the puzzle during or after the show that night and I still can’t say with confidence that I know now, but I do have a theory.   I believe that seeing a band who is much larger than the venue sounds like a great idea on paper, but can be an issue in practice.  You hear about Prince or Metallica or any other legendary artist showing up for a surprise show at some dive bar and you think ‘damn, I wish I was there instead of Oracle Arena‘.  It’s the intimacy that you’re missing in the large venues. It’s the intimacy that sells you on the idea of the smaller venue.  But there is another side of this coin.  The smaller venue does not have the sound system, it does not have the lighting, it does not have the facilities to put on the ‘big’ show.  So while it’s great when someone like Paul Simon or Springsteen can sit down with a guitar in a small venue and entertain the hell out of everybody with a song, sometimes a rock show is better in a larger venue.  I think that is why I enjoyed TV on the Radio at The Fillmore better than The Independent.

But then again, maybe getting back on stage after the death of a friend took a little something out of the band.  Maybe the energy coming off the stage was different than it was a few years ago?   I don’t know the answer, but I will say closing the main set with Wolf Like Me made me forgot all thoughts of what the show was lacking and once again I howled along!  No longer a wolfpack of thousands or a wolfpack of one..for the first time we were a small pack of a few hundred and it was something special.

The encore consisted of a track each off Cookie Mountain, Nine Types of Light and Young Liars.  Ending the night with Satellite was a little bit of a downer, but to say I was slightly disappointed in a show that will go down as one of the best of the year just proves how spoiled I have become.

Setlist (click for video):
Young Liars
The Wrong Way
Caffeinated Consciousness
Blues From Down Here
Will Do
Red Dress
Staring at the Sun
Wolf Like Me

A Method