Is Blonde Redhead New York’s coolest band?
In a town where credibility counts, Blonde Redhead’s story is one of serendipitous chance and sustainability. Having met randomly in a New York City Italian restaurant in 1993 — while in art school, of course — brothers Simone and Amadeo Pace, Kazu Makino and Maki Takahishi (who left the band after the self-titled debut and wasn’t replaced) quickly began making art-noise in the Sonic Youth vein, named their band after a DNA song, then got picked up by none other then Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelly for his Smells Like Records label. As the years went on, Makino’s screamo vocals gave way to a more lush, doleful tone, hitting a potential apex with 2000’s Melody of Certain Damages Lemons, a toned-down and subtle yet tuneful synth-laced lullaby of an album.
That technique seems to have stuck since that 2000 milestone; the band’s previous two albums — 2004’s Misery Is a Butterfly and this year’s 23 — have retained a dream-pop timbre with sporadic flourishes of noise. Such contrast defined the band’s May 9 set at Webster Hall in support of the new album. After a muscular performance by up-and-comers Fields — the band hit a climactic racket on its final song and quickly fled — Blonde Redhead slipped onstage in the dark and initially kept an expected distance from the audience.
Throughout their career, these guys have done a bang-up job of keeping their art-school cool. And tonight, bathed in red and purple lights, Makino coyly crooned 23‘s “Dr. Strangeluv” as if she had found comfort in her hometown stage. It recalled a time in New York when being hip didn’t mean being a hipster.
Obtrusively seated beside her onstage was a large statue of a horse, a recent motif familiar to the band’s fan base. Makino was involved in an equestrian accident a few years back, an incident that practically broke-up the band but eventually inspired 2003’s Misery is a Butterfly. Since the accident, the band has used horse imagery to great effect, as if to gain inspiration from such a shattering misfortune. Placed in front of the horse was Makino’s keyboard, and after trading off vocal duties with Amedeo on a few guitar-heavy tracks from 23, she took her seat and began crooning and belting away.
And she essentially became the show’s main event. Seducing the crowd with coy hip shakes, long hair and short shorts, she lingered across the stage to drop some mid-song Eskimo kisses on Amedeo, transfixing the room. This playfulness extended to the rest of the band throughout the set. It was a contrast to the band’s normal reserved onstage demeanor — in fact, they were reserved during the set’s first half. Maybe it was the feeling of being at home, but toward they eventually began speaking to the audience, even taking advice about the bass drums.
It was at that point that they dropped 23’s “SW,” highlighting Amendo’s vocal style of childlike wonderment against Makino’s tender coos. But an extended outro gave way to the instantly recognizable synths of Melody of Certain Damages Lemons openers “Equally Damaged” and “In Particular,” frenzying the spellbound crowd and reminding us that Blonde Redhead is still among New York’s coolest. A sad lament and a brief encore later and the three art-school kids disappeared just as they arrived.