Being partially jaded and partially giddy before the Strokes' free show at Auditorium Shores Stage Thursday night -- their second of the year supporting new album Angles and their first at South By Southwest since a 2001 showcase -- was a reasonable frame of mind. No band's music ever embodied those opposing emotions better, with singer Julian Casablancas' lopsided, slouching swagger alternatively mocking and clinging to his bandmates' exuberant edit of '90s lo-fi indie-rock. And the 2011 Strokes haven't disabused anyone of the idea that their reunion after five years is just as much about contractual considerations as any natural, fraternal desire to riff as one.
But the estimated 30,000 people who thronged the venue on the banks of Lady Bird Lake were about as conflicted as drunk old high-school crushes friending and messaging each other at 3AM -- this was l'amour fou, a crazy love that surged forward (at one point collapsing a fence), screaming and crowd-surfing spontaneously, and desperately hollering along to virtually all the lyrics with big, loopy grins.
It didn't hurt that the reconstituted thirtysomething version of the band plays with a tight, soberminded focus, and that Casablancas now leans into his vocals with a ferocity that was rarely, if ever, present in precious years. Being coy and sloshed and off-key can be alluring when you're 24; now, Casablancas' charisma is based more on the fact that he actually sounds like he gives a fuck.
Maybe not everybody in attendance thought the Strokes were the last band that made rock and roll seem both cool and culturally powerful. But it felt that way, especially after the whole place shouted "I ain't wastin' no more tiiiiime!" before the levitating '60s garage-rock breakdown on "Someday." Or when we all swayed along to the yearning lilt of "Under Control" like it was the 2000s' great lost prom theme.
Or when Nick Valensi gave "New York City Cops" that extra hair-metal nudge. Or when any of the revolving cast of three ladies at stage left -- all of whom looked like unhinged soccer moms (but in a distinctly Austin, tattooed kind of way) -- got up on a riser and performed the songs in wildly theatrical sign language. The passive-aggressive seduction scene of "Reptilia" will never be the same.
Then it was the encore, and the exact second "Last Nite" commenced, fireworks went off in the lake behind the stage and even the band had to smile (if only inside), because whether the Strokes represent what they once did, or are as artistically relevant, there are plenty of people (some even within the band itself) who simply want to hear those songs, plus a few of the cannier new ones like "Taken for a Fool," played well, unburdened by the weight of significance. Who cares whether their lasting legacy is that rappers wear skinny jeans? Honestly, the shit was on point, O.K? If you don't believe me, check Kanye's tweets from the Madison Square Garden show!