The Black Keys may have been the technical headliners of FM 94/9’s Independence Jam, but as the sun began to set and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were welcomed to the stage, the throng of maniacal tweens made it clear that nobody was there for the blues. Having spent the last six years teetering between indie and mainstream success, a hero’s welcome is likely nothing new for the band, and as frontwoman/force of nature Karen O wrapped a spiky-gloved hand around her microphone, nothing stood between her and the hysterical crowd’s expectations.
Ever since discovering Pro Tools during the recording of Show Your Bones, Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums have been lushly produced and layered affairs, which can’t help but make their performances seem anemic by comparison. The masterful Nick Zinner—who thankfully, unlike on this year’s It’s Blitz, was not forced to waste his talents on synth duty—did his best to fatten up the sound with his reliably inventive guitar work, but could only do so much. Unsung drummer Brian Chase wrangled the songs with his forceful, syncopated percussion, while an anonymous fourth person thanklessly handled acoustic guitar, synthesizer, and bass from the rear of the stage.
But Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always been The Karen O Show, for better or worse, and Sunday was no exception. Oozing extraterrestrial charisma and sporting what appeared to be a giant pillowcase with technicolor Native American patterns over a neon-green leotard, the singer growled and strutted around the stage, spitting water into the air and deep-throating her microphone. The routine is probably a staple of every show, but what it may have lacked in spontaneity it made up for in goofy charm. Opening with “Dull Life”, It’s Blitz’s only straight-forward rocker, Karen and company quickly ramped up the energy for the festival crowd.
Though it’s natural for bands to lean heavily on their latest release, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ set list was diplomatically diverse. Show Your Bones tracks “Gold Lion”, “Honeybear”, and “Cheated Hearts”—which featured a prolonged intro—were all dusted off, as were “Pin” from 2003’s Fever To Tell, “Rockers To Swallow” from last year’s Is Is, and “Miles Away” from their self-titled EP. The song selection was a welcome mixture of the band’s hits and deeper cuts, and served as a fine introduction for casual listeners.
Of course, no Yeah Yeah Yeahs show would be complete without the obligatory performance of their hit single “Maps”, the opening notes of which caused several of the teenagers in the crowd to convulse in tears (seriously). Once an oddity among Fever To Tell’s balls-out post-punk, the song has become the band’s calling card, attracting fans who have little interest in the group’s usual sound. The song has proven to be a mixed blessing, forcing Karen O to (over)indulge her sentimental muse on subsequent releases. On Sunday, the band seemed even more sick of the cartographic ballad than longtime fans are; their perfunctory performance limped along with a fraction of the emotional intensity it should have had.
Luckily, the band was far less sick of playing their new material, and they tackled songs from It’s Blitz with aplomb. “Soft Shock” and “Heads Will Roll” sounded far fresher than the played-out “Maps”, and they ended the set on a high note with their hit single “Zero”. Despite having been scheduled for an hour, the band only played for forty minutes, ignoring the crowd’s feeble attempt to summon them back for an encore. The brevity of the set made the performance feel phoned-in: passable, but clearly not their “A” game.
Even more problematic was how out of their element the band seemed as they played a sunny festival show with the ocean behind them. Yeah Yeah Yeahs are at their strongest when they exude sex and danger; they belong in seedy night clubs, not playing outdoor twilight shows for Twilight fans. “Maps” may have earned the band deserved attention, but it also neutered them in the process; it’s highly unlikely that they’ll ever again release anything as raw as Fever To Tell. Nevertheless, there were moments on Sunday, in between the rehearsed theatrics and sappy balladry, where the Yeah Yeah Yeahs of yesterday revealed themselves in all their unbound, feverish glory.