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Noise Live: The Strokes

The Theater at Madison Square Garden
New York City

Thefirst thing you notice is the drum riser. It’s got to be at least threefeet high. What is this, a Kiss concert? Then you gasp at the lightingrig, an intimidating apparatus that hangs over the stage like the IronGiant’s claw. Three years ago, the Strokes were playing to sweatythrongs in East Village scum pits; since then, they’ve performed atfestivals in front of tens of thousands. Simply negotiating thetransition from a 200-capacity dive to a spotless 5,600-capacityenormotorium attached to a sports arena would cow most headliners. Buton the first date of a two-night stand in support of their sophomorealbum, Room on Fire, New York’s finest delivered a terse, 65-minute,encore-free set that was something of a revelation, even if the overalleffect was akin to eating a PB&J at Le Cirque.

Much has been made of how Room on Fire is a virtual carbon copy of Is This It,only tougher (and maybe not as catchy). With its dank-basementambience, it does sound exactly like the debut. But, JulianCasablancas’ walkie-talkie vocals to the contrary, the Strokes valueclarity. On record, every instrument is distinct, as if each bandmember is performing inside his own musty closet, but live, the songswere transformed, the Theater’s superb sound mix making them dense andfull-bodied without losing any grit.

Flanked by stylin’ guitarists Nick Valensi (striped blazer)and Albert Hammond Jr. (thrift-shop suit), Casablancas had two stagemoves: Either he faced forward, hands wrapped around the mic, or hestrutted around with one metaphorically rich hand behind his back. Calmbassist Nikolai Fraiture stood sphinxlike and intense. Attentivetimekeeper Fabrizio Moretti kept his head bowed throughout most of theset.

Although Casablancas was battling a throat infection, the opener, Room‘sextraordinary ballad “Under Control,” found him crooning in a finevoice. Since the new album had been on the street for only two days, Is This It‘s”Hard to Explain” got the biggest reaction; many in the audience jumpedup and down in unison while the band stopped on a never-ending seriesof shiny dimes. On “The Modern Age,” Hammond punished his strings whileshaking his ample ‘fro, then segued into Room’s retro-futurist “12:51”– which, along with “The End Has No End” and “Automatic Stop,” provedthat those Cars-style keyboard riffs were indeed coming from guitars.

The illusion of total slickness was shattered late in theshow, when Casablancas brought out opening act Regina Spektor for anawkward, offhand duet on a new song featuring vague, spy-movie guitar.Not exactly something Kiss would do, and a good thing, too.