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Karen O’s Gonna Need a New Microphone

Beneath their festival-ready polish, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs still play like scrappy art-punks.

2:55 PM CDT on June 5, 2023

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We’ve heard of a mic check… but a mic LICK?

Well somebody fucked up.

I couldn’t tell which member of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs missed a cue or jumped in on the wrong beat or committed some other fatal flub, but somehow “Burning” fizzled before it even really got cooking. “This is a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show, guys,” singer Karen O said without shame or frustration as the band regrouped. “I don’t know if you’ve heard but we mess up the whole fuckin’ time. We’re pros.” 

Here, just five songs into the NYC art-punks’ 15-song, 90ish-minute Armory set—their first Minneapolis performance since 2013 at First Ave—we already had the second false start of the night, and I was sorta relieved. I’m not the kind of DIY sucker who deems incompetence as a sign of raw inspiration, but the reassurance that five years on the festival circuit hadn’t unknotted all the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ kinks was certainly welcome.

The first stumble had come during opener “Spitting Off the Edge of the World.” The lead track from the YYYs’ latest, Cool It Down, begins with an overture of moody synths, the sort of washes, arpeggios, and grooves designed to build anticipation among a baked outdoor crowd. To hear a savvy move like that not go off like clockwork let us know that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs may have graduated from rock clubs but there’s still some scuzz beneath the gloss. They’re practiced, not slick.

The untrustworthy cliché that the superfan always preaches to the nonbeliever—“You gotta see ’em live”—is genuinely the case with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. You gotta see the playful, feral, regal Karen O in all her onstage magnificence, of course. An instant stage legend before the YYYs had even busted out of the Lower East Side, she’s sexy in the way someone can only be when consciously in command of her body, exploring its strengths and capabilities, rather than in a purely sexualized way (though we’ll get to the naughty stuff she did to her poor microphone in a bit). 

O knows the value of a gesture: One stiffly upraised arm can be as effectively stirring as any thrashing and whirling and stomping. And she abides by the scenester credo of self-as-artwork: Her hair still familiarly bobbed, she began the show in dramatic shades, black evening gloves cut out at the hands, and a red dress that seemed fashioned from infinitely expanding rectangles, kinda like the alien in Nope. She later traded in that look for a gold-and-purple tunic that frayed into ribbons at the waist, something like a grass skirt, bound by a belt emblazoned with “KO.”

But also, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs just sound better live. O’s voice scrunches more expressively. She deploys her mewls, drawls, and probably other words that end in “wls” more surprisingly. The gasps of her upper register flicker between orgasmic and vulnerable more ambiguously. And drummer Brian Chase pounds with greater nuance.

But most of all, the opinion I formed when I first saw the band nearly 20 years ago in a Philly club about the size of the Entry (RIP North Star), and have restated somewhat tediously ever since, was confirmed on Saturday night: Nick Zinner’s guitar only achieves its full, reverberant shape live. Somehow even the most sympathetic studio production cages it. That fuller sound was especially notable on older cuts from the band’s 2003 debut full-length Fever to Tell, written before Zinner began two-timing his ax with banks of keyboards. His extended introductions to “Y Control” and “Maps” twinkled with feedback and harmonics and other knowing uses of the guitar’s electronic potential.

But no matter how much a “you gotta see ‘em live” band Yeah Yeah Yeahs are, many fans at the Armory (including a few I happened to know personally) never had seen the band they felt so connected to. So what do you call nostalgia for a past you never quite experienced? A youth re-lived on better terms? If so, this must have been like hooking up with an undergrad crush at your reunion for those fans. 

Me, I was less nostalgic than anyone. In their glory days, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the high point of a remarkably self-mythologizing scene that I resented with the intensity that only a 30-year-old can muster against twenty-somethings acting like they’d just invented punk, sex, and New York. (Don’t even get me started on how the reconsolidation of indie bands in NYC led to a brain drain that sapped lively regional scenes of their talent.) I’ll take the band as they are now—thriving and stretching their capabilities and drained of any sepia-toned Meet Me in the Bathroom sentimentality.

In some ways, it’s funny that it’s taken the YYYs so long to fill a room like the Armory, but their career has nudged forward and leapt back with herkyjerk momentum over the past two decades. Upon release, each of their five full-lengths was slotted as a triumph (Fever to Tell, It’s Blitz) or an honorable also-ran (everything else), and that belief in their easy categorization goes along with the sense that their work can be bifurcated into distinct punk and dance eras. But such narratives get upended live. “Zero” and “Pin” sound like the work of the same band that gave us “Gold Lion,” which felt like a plodding follow up to early fans and now sounds just as welcome as the gloriously over-the-top “Sacrilege.” 

The band drew more than a quarter of its set from their latest album, but for the most part, songs that struck me as fine but unremarkable on Cool It Down didn’t leave me longing for the oldies. Only the woozy “Lovebomb” presented itself as a prime opportunity for a piss or a beer. False start regardless, “Burning” in particular was—I’ll just say “good” so I don’t make an easy fire-related pun—and “Wolf” (“I’m hungry like a wolf/I bleed like a wolf”) was suitably slavering. (That one’s not so bad, right?) “Spitting off the Edge of the World” was elevated by vocal assistance from opener Mike Hadras, a.k.a Perfume Genius, whose own opening set got somewhat lost in the big room, despite the dramatic magnitude of his music. 

O remained magnetic even when doling out basic pump-up-the-crowd exhortations, squealing “It’s a fucking Saturday night and there’s a full moon out there babies!”—though not even she can get away with calling us “Minny.” “This is a Yeah Yeah Yeahs love song” is how she introduced “Maps” before correcting herself. “This is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs love song.” She dedicated it to some local couples—Alan Sparhawk and the late Mimi Parker of Low, as well as Sean Tillman and his wife Laura (that was a bit awkward)—and also to Tina Turner and to “all the lovers.” If you haven’t listened lately, “Maps” remains as aching a long-distance transmission of desire as ever to waft up from the underground. 

Like all the places the Yeah Yeah Yeahs now play, the Armory is not a small room, and the band’s stage show has been upscaled to a grand spectacle that gave those of us not hardy enough to wriggle our way to the front something to gawk at. Two giant inflated eyeballs bounced through the crowd during “Zero.” The huge screen behind the band began in solid blood red and changed throughout, roiling volcanically for “Burning” and displaying a silvery YYY logo for the set closer, “Heads Will Roll.” Confetti cannons also exploded during that song, as, I believe, traditionally occurs during beheadings.  

“Sometimes I think I’m bigger than the sound,” Karen O had sung early in the night on “Cheated Hearts,” and as the band’s sound has expanded, she’s accepted the dare of growing her persona to match  The set culminated in the encore “Date With the Night” with O’s voice set to liquify, Zinner, undistracted by synths, in his most extreme lower Manhattan noisemaker mode looking, and Chase as though he’d leap or maybe flip over his drum kit. This was a three-way race, a rivalry between stage presence and thrilling noise.

I’m not saying O won (it’s not really a contest) but she ended the night by (wo)manhandling her gilded microphone, spinning it in Daltrey-style circles and then walloping it to the Armory stage. She flung the mic away, then skipped across the stage to retrieve it. She shoved the mic down her dress and retrieved it from between her legs, where it dangled flaccidly before she raised it to her mouth to lick it. You didn’t have to be an Oberlin grad to figure something symbolic was going on here. Who could settle for a mere mic drop ever again after that?

Setlist

Spitting Off the Edge of the World
Cheated Hearts
Y Control
Phenomena
Burning
Zero
Fleez
Soft Shock
Lovebomb
Sacrilege
Maps
Gold Lion
Pin
Heads Will Roll

Encore
Date With the Night

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