Rules for a Successful Rock Show, Case #432: Cage the Elephant. (Good band name not necessary.)
Get a crowd who enjoys your stuff. One, though not the only, indication that Cage the Elephant won over the heaving audience at Pop's last night was the demand for an encore. Widespread hooting and chanting began as soon as the band left the stage. Since the previous 45 minutes was a fog of nonstop chugga-chugga rhythms and gutbucket commitment, the encore break was really the first occasion for the audience to hurrah their appreciation. And applaud they did.
The London-via-Kentucky band--Matt Shultz (vocals), Brad Shultz and Lincoln Parish (guitars), Jared Champion (drums), and Daniel Tichenor (bass)--looked like unbathed hitchhikers when it returned. No doubt the last two years have been one big hike: a major record-label deal, a smart move to England, an iTunes anointment and a push from MTV. Even at this larval stage of its career, Cage the Elephant has been lucky. Judging by the response, the crowd wasn't just there for "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" and "Back Against the Wall," the two breakout singles from Elephant's self-titled debut. Every song from the album, a collection of baggy garage-rock, was an opportunity to sing along. The band could have repeated the previous hour with no complaint.
Don't bullshit between songs. Not once (maybe because he was too busy--see below) did M. Schultz prompt or beseech or order the crowd to clap, raise hands in the air, or make some noise. There was no nu-metal preening, no guitar-hero posturing, no emo anecdotalizing. The set was a discipline of high-speed ruthlessness, an aesthetic of lump-sum momentum. Banter was absent, talk was nominal -- group identifications and a one-time, no-duh acknowledgement that "we don't talk much" from M. Schultz was the extent of the evening's repartee. In fact, I don't think any member of the band paused to drink beer, much less water, the entire show.
Have a lead singer who can work the stage. It's no coincidence (or secret) that, in the rock and roll pantheon, more bands than not--by a 3:1 ratio, I reckon--have found success with lead singers released from the bondage of an instrument. Free to roam around and to moon about, singers can cultivate presence, crowdsurf at a moment's notice, and (most signally) dance. Fans connect to this behavior; it's what they're doing, in their own way, from the floor. But only if you're lucky will you get someone to imitate who's as live-wire and unhinged as Matt Shultz.
Such a dynamo of activity was Shultz last night that it was tiring to watch. So what if he didn't hit every cue or if his voice cracked under the pressure of his spazz-outs: His gonzo boogie was a performance in itself. It was a ballet of punk-palooka pogo, of dead-monkey flopping, of Girl Group twists, of pitching back and forth like a tweaked drinking bird. Schultz greeted every instrumental break, like during "James Brown," with a zeal accorded only to Herpes II. And the audience, some of whom absorbed his swan-dives, couldn't have been happier for it. When Schultz did stop, it was only to catch his breath.
Play good music. Nobody would claim Cage the Elephant has reinvented the garage-rock wheel, but it performed as if it had. Songs like the risible rap-rock of "In One Ear" may induce wincing, and you wouldn't be entirely wrong in calling Elephant's sound nothing more than well-polished pastiche. No matter, too, that its lyrics are made from duct-taped platitudes and home-brewed stories. Its best songs were greater than the sum of their parts: as snotty and jukebox-ready as "Soil to the Sun," "Back Stabbin' Betty," "Wicked" and "Wall" are, they were turbulent and spacious in concert, slippery as goose shit and twice as loose. These were songs that amend definitions and obliterate distinctions.
It was, in other words, no mere regurgitative exercise; each song last night was a ragged incarnation. Cage the Elephant might now be a triumph of hype, hope and music-press horoscopes. But there's a future there. Yonder it lays.
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