We were on our way to the mountains for the weekend when I was first exposed to Sleigh Bells. I had downloaded a bunch of blogged-about tracks that week and hadn’t had a chance to listen to them, so I threw them on a playlist for the drive to Summit County. Everything was going smooth until a track called “Crown on the Ground” devastated my speakers, and the mood of everyone in the car. What I first mistook for a badly ripped mp3, ended up being the actual debut recording from Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller. Despite the catchy beat and interesting vocals, we didn’t make it through the entire song on that drive. The extreme distortion and lack of production value were just too much for a family road trip. In fact, my wife was actually pissed off that she had to suffer through sixty seconds of what she dismissed as ‘noise’.
A few months later, after being blasted by Alexis’ father on this very blog (for questioning his daughter’s musical prowess), we were in Austin watching Sleigh Bells demolish a stage somewhere south on Rainey Street. I was in absolute awe. Not only because I fell in love with Alexis the minute I saw her in action, but because of the pure energy being released from that stage. The shell-shocked crowd didn’t know what do to. Some were bouncing as if at a hip-hop show, completely oblivious to the mosh pit swirling around them. Some were standing completely still, afraid to look away, even if it was to pick their jaw up off the ground. This was SXSW 2010 and Sleigh Bells were giving new meaning to the world ‘darlings’. This was the first of four Sleigh Bells performances I witnessed that year — most of them with my wife. She never again asked me to turn off that ‘noise’ — we were both in love.
Fast-forward a few years and Sleigh Bells are no longer little ‘indie darlings’ that ‘those in the know’ can pull out to prove they are cool. They travel in large tour buses — they hobnob with Anthony Bourdain and headline large SXSW showcases — they have been featured in Apple commercials and television shows. They have outgrown Larimer Lounge and opening slots. And although they moved things down the road from the Ogden (where they co-headlined with Neon Indian in 2011), they had no problem selling out the Bluebird Theater on Thursday night.
Past Sleigh Bells shows have always been more style than substance. Stacked amps, Derek’s shredding guitars, and Alexis’ transformation from a cute ‘girl next door’ type to a bombshell sex symbol — singing (screaming, shouting, demanding attention) while whipping her hair around like a weapon — she knows how to incite a riot. I realize that objectifying someone like Alexis is frowned upon, but I would argue that in the case of Sleigh Bells, it it justified. When she is on stage, Alexis Krauss is no longer that girl who used to be a teacher in the Bronx. She is no longer the daughter of some guy who scours the internet looking to defend her honor. When Alexis Krauss takes that stage, she is not only the voice of Sleigh Bells, she is also an extremely provocative being. She is there to lure us in, and she’s going to use everything at her disposal — her voice, her sexuality, the movement of her body and the whip of her hair. As I said, a Sleigh Bells show is more about style (and feeling and sex) than it is about musical substance. And with sets that average about 35 minutes, some might leave satisfied, while others leave frustrated. The choice is yours.
But that all changed on Thursday night. Not that this performance was any less intense, or sexual (Alexis literally gave herself to the crowd when she surfed for most of “A/B Machines”), but there was a lot more going on this time around. This was the first time I’ve seen the band with a drummer and second guitarist. These additions really rounded out the sound and made it feel like we were experiencing a full band. The new material (from Bitter Rivals) also rounded out the set, giving us room to breath between the more intense tracks. Ebb and flow have been non-existent at past Sleigh Bells shows — structured more like a theme park ride than a show, they have always been blinding, white-knuckled affairs. This time was different — a diverse setlist, multiple lighting options (vs. straight strobe), a full encore, and a set time that pushed past one hour. There were times when I was missing those Larimer Lounge experiences (where surviving the show was almost as important as enjoying it) but I do appreciate that the band can mature without losing that liberal outlook on the difference between music and noise.
There arn’t many bands that can still surprise me after seeing them six times, and honestly I didn’t think Sleigh Bells were one of those bands, but I was happy to be proved wrong. Thursday night was a flawless performance by a band that I admire. We got off to a rocky start, but it’s nice to see them transcend that ‘darling’ status — it’s nice to seem them add substance without losing any passion.
We ran into Alexis after the show. She had changed out of her stage clothes and was dressed in jeans, a black leather jacket and a scarf. She was walking her dog and chatting with fans. She was back to being the ‘girl next door’ and she was being treated as such by those who had stuck around to get autographs and chat with an artist they respect. Sure, most of these kids would have dumped their girlfriends on the spot if it meant they could be alone with her for a few minutes, but that’s normal, right? Like a friend of mine said, “there is something about that girl”.
Crown On The Ground
True Shred Guitar
Born to Lose
You Don’t Get Me Twice
Sing Like a Wite