Suffice it to say, Madison Square Garden is not the venue you would expect for this bunch. Interpol maybe — the quartet does have a Capital record deal and the members do wear designer suits. But certainly not Cat Power or Liars. The former’s medicated soul jams require more intimacy than a nineteen-thousand-seat arena can ever provide, and the latter’s primal pysch-rock just seems silly (or scary) when the rafters are full of high-schoolers crushing on Paul Banks. We would hope for a little common sense.
But concert promoters have different priorities, and the September 15 performance proved a hard lesson in the importance of matching artist with venue. I appreciated the idealism behind the triple billing, not its execution. Only Interpol managed to connect with folks outside of general admission.
Much like Liars’ albums, the band’s performance alternated between Can-like rhythmic obsession (2006’s Drum’s Not Dead) and Stooges-like dummy rock (last month’s Liars). Angus Andrew’s caveman yowls would have boiled blood at the Bowery (as they might have for the kids stage-side at the Garden). But once they reached the rest of us, it was hard to tell what all the fuss was about.
Cat Power, like Liars, is a prodigious (sometimes maddeningly inconsistent) talent. The Greatest (2006) — Chan Marshall’s first foray into sobriety and Memphis soul — is nearly as good as its vaulted reputation. But Marshall has been a notorious no-show. For a performer with a history of crimpling stage fright, it doesn’t get much worse than Madison Square Garden. Yet Marshall pulled it off — her voice never lost its conviction. Her backing band — Dirty Delta Blues — sent Marshall’s bourbon soul off into a Memphis sunset. Though I wanted to see her pick up a guitar, just seeing Marshall onstage for a solid forty-five minutes was a minor triumph.
But as with Liars before her, the Garden diluted the power of Cat Power’s set. The rafters mangled her best stuff — the masterful cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and her own heartbreaking “Where Is My Love.” That warm molasses voice of hers lost its nuance. This was music for bars, not basketball stadiums.
Interpol alone managed to fill the space. The foursome’s last two records are fat with arena stompers. There’s “Narc” and “Slow Hands” from 2004’s Antics; there’s “The Heinrich Maneuver” and “Mammoth” from this year’s Our Love to Admire. All of these and more flourished in the Garden’s ample environs. Despite an early snafu — the scrim in front of the band refused to fall during the moody opener, “Pioneer to the Falls” — the members of Interpol made themselves right at home. The boys are professionals, almost to a fault. Stick them in the Garden and the result is a newly mastered album — all the levels equalized and punched up, the low and high ends ricocheting around the Knicks jerseys hanging from the ceiling. Interpol’s hook-junky post-punk sounded ballsier and more robust — less self-absorbed. Sam Fogarino even turned out a quick drum solo (the supposed height of arena-size narcissism) without resorting to irony.
Interpol, Banks in particular, has never been known for on-stage charisma. But keep your eye on guitarist Daniel Kessler. His stage dance — a sort of horizontal shuffle involving his right foot sliding moonwalk-like behind his left — seemed downright acrobatic at the Garden. It might have looked ridiculous up front — a lot of things looked (and sounded) different depending on where you were sitting — but goofy or not, it certainly proved endearing. Interpol’s impeccably dressed, impossibly cool reputation could stand a few holes, and Kessler was just the guy for the job.
It would be easy to chide Interpol for the record deal, the inconsistent new album, for bassist Carlos Dengler’s wretch facial hair. But Cat Power and Liars — Interpol’s equals in every other respect — have shown how difficult it is to play MSG and own it. Not everyone benefits from the challenge. But if you can play the Garden without falling on your face, by all means, boys. Go to it.
Cat Power: http://www.matadorrecords.com/cat_power/