Foxygen & Star Power | 04.04.15

For someone who came to the show with no expectations, I left genuinely happy.

 

 

The Firebird, St. Louis

Tony Clifton. If I could end this concert review right there, I would. But Alex Cameron and Roy Molloy deserve a surplus of superlatives for coming out to entertain like few have. Not to be outdone, Foxygen took the baton and ran with it during their set. For someone who came to the show with no expectations, I left genuinely happy, and here’s why:

The first time I heard anything specific about this band other than the name Foxygen, it was maybe a week or so ago, when for once in I don’t know how many years, I tuned into David Letterman, and witnessed them getting their national TV debut.

For the better part of 10 years, I’ve tuned out just about any band with Fox in their name, for no particular reason beyond the expectation of something retro in general, and disco specifically. At the first signs of a Saturday Night Fever kicking in, the suspect offender got quarantined from my ears. But this wasn’t disco—this was showbiz. They were campy and over-the-top on Letterman, but in true me-fashion, when a friend from Springfield, Mo., got in touch about coming into town to go to the Foxygen show, I wasn’t sure if that was the band I saw on Letterman or not. I did recall hearing something about the tour being a farewell to “Star Power,” the band that they had become.

Based on my friend’s description of the band, I completely whiffed on recognizing the name. The band she described sounded more like Kula Shaker or the Soundtrack of Our Lives; what I heard on Letterman had me thinking of Fitz and the Tantrums. But I was on board to attend. I didn’t bother to preview their music, or do anything other than find out the names of the opening acts and the show time. As is the case with artists I know and love, I prefer going into a show without hearing their stuff beforehand; that way I can enjoy the show as a standalone experience without expectations. When my friends hit town we had an obscenely indulgent, food coma-inducing dinner and made our way to the Firebird. I was about as Zen as I could ever hope to be going into a show—you have no clue how appropriate that was.

When Alex Cameron took the stage, it was in an unassuming manner, and when Roy Molloy joined him, sax in tow, a few presumed he was just out there to sound check. Then he hit a button on a device and these archetypical synth grooves worthy of being dubbed “MIDI-Patch Time Machine” came out of the PA. My thought process was dead simple:

“This is really happening.”

“Superlative profanities.”

“This can’t be serious… but they are not eff’ing around.”

You see, those canned, archaic synth grooves were GOOD. Nay, great. If you go back in time and listen to some of the synth pop that devolved into Muzak, you’ll find a fair number of songs that managed to latch on the progressions and melodies that were indelible and infectious. A few artists mined elements of music theory that is nothing short of genius, when given voice through sophisticated or elegant instrumentation. Pump that stuff through the “MIDI Patch Time Machine” and you get subversive entertainment at its finest, but that’s not why this became one of the greatest sets I’ve ever witnessed. No, no, not hardly. 

You see, first, there’s Roy Molloy’s attire appropriate sax playing, and unflinching stoic-ness. Second, Cameron’s vocals, primarily in a theatrical baritone, carry the melodies and were songs unto themselves. Lastly, the lyrics clear as day over the minimalist arrangements, take what some might have seen as a shtick and turned it into a showcase. These songs are crass, snarky, perceptive, and witty as all get out. It’s the kind of lyricism that people who love appreciate Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Morrissey, and even Dylan smile on the inside and out.

It satire, it’s critique, it’s just brilliant. Alex Cameron’s got that. For myself, not being a person who gets into lyrics until well after the fact when listening to music, particularly in the live setting, this was a true “moment.” The limitations of the “canned-band” became the front man’s strength. Cameron’s posturing and crooning played even larger to the audience with this backdrop, and Roy Molloy, ever the straight man magnified this with his stillness. His banter with the crowd only played up the whole aesthetic. His anecdotes and asides were mostly in persona, though at times the line blurred, given the obvious nature of the put-on, but complete ignorance most of the audience (to my knowledge) had of the origins of the Alex Cameron performance we were witnessing. Regardless, they only added to the entertainment value of the set, which I’m pretty sure, comprised all of his debut album Jumping the Sharkwhich is available to download for free. Trust me, if you were an adolescent during the ’90s, you want to go to this website. All that said, Cameron’s set was performance art and entertainment on so many levels. I could think of no better way to prime an audience for what followed.

In a month that included their aforementioned live television debut and a much-publicized faux farewell announcement, the band I hardly knew as Foxygen packed the Firebird and took the Star Power moniker to heart. Draped behind the drum kit: a pentagram. Affixed to the piano: a portrait of Jesus. On the mic of a demon-possessed backup singer: a crucifix. Rather than wander onto the stage unassumingly, Foxygen made a full-fledged entrance and took the stage like a house on fire.

Sam France didn’t so much as introduce the band as give an introduction to the performance, a narrative in and unto itself. As he danced around the stage to and fro, the rest of the band, enough people to fill out a rec league baseball team bounded with energy, dancing, singing, like the party had already been going on for hours, and was just peaking. All the while, France narrated little anecdotes about the band members and himself that played out during the set, complete with interludes that paid off in the story.

The songs game in medleys of three and four at a time, fast and furious, psychedelic and funky, with just enough fury to convince you someone was going to come flying off the stage at any moment, be it during the “exorcism” about a third of the way through their set, the fight between the guitarists mid-set, the freak-out before the wardrobe change that played like a faux finale with my friend’s favorite song being pumped over the house PA “San Francisco” as the crowd sang along, or the quizzical reactions by the band to the false start of the cover they ultimately didn’t play, “Let It Be.”

The memorable moments were aplenty and it really did feel like a Birdman & the Angry Finch at times. I personally got a kick out of it, largely because I didn’t expect it or know what was coming next. So when the piano player gets up on his bench, mounts the keyboard, and starts wailing in a guitar duel, it’s unprecedented, and a genuine thrill.

The arch of the story of Star Power, as told through their emphatic set, was bent toward their newer material. Since I was new to the band, it all sounded fun and lively to me. I didn’t detect much of a disco-musk vibe from them at all, but the urge to boogie was undeniable. People got loose and had a good time, and by then end of the show, the arch had run its course, with Foxygen and Star Power triumphant at its close.

It was a great night of entertainers embracing the art or entertaining by any and all means available, with a wink, a smile, and a groove. The thing is, it’s so much better when you don’t know what’s coming, and aren’t concerned with being in on the joke. At times like these, it’s better to be in the moment and enjoy being part of the audience, experiencing it. Tony Clifton all the way. | Willie E. Smith Jr.

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