Come the end of the decade, it always seemed like Julian Casablancas would be a name passing many a cultural commentator’s lips. Quite that it would be in the manner that it is, was less predictable. As frontman and chief songwriter of The Strokes, the better part of the past 10 years was Casablancas’ for the taking. He began it as something of an indie rock saviour; fronting the band that helped stem the flow of traffic to the super clubs of Ibiza and the duller confines of the New Acoustic movement. He has ended it on rather less of a high note, but a high note nonetheless, with a decent solo debut (Phrazes for the Young) and a rather fine Christmas single, yet he still has everything to prove – not that anybody present tonight needs much convincing.
Verging on mass hysteria, Casablancas is noticeably taken aback by the level of love in the room as he shuffles on stage with his backing band, The Sick Six. Instantly setting out his stall with a marriage of rock, synths, and insanely catchy pop-hooks in the shape of -11th Dimension’, it’s clear that such adoration is not misplaced. -Out of the Blue’ follows and in many ways documents Casablancas’ decade with the tall frontman singing that ‘Somewhere along the way, my hopefulness turned to sadness/ Somewhere along the way, my sadness turned to bitterness’ in his trademark slurred-vocal style. It doesn’t quite scale the heights of the recorded version, but Casablancas nonetheless manages to deliver with the kind of effortless cool that he’s become noted for.
-River of Brakelights’, one of the album’s highlights, is the only damp squib tonight and sounds flat and uninspired. More often than not, Casablancas sings in a manner that forces you to cock your ear to hear his lyrics, and here he’s totally inaudible – any hint of vocal melody drowned out by a band who perform their duties without ever thinking to make room for one another. The archetypal session-players band, they’re totally devoid of any on-stage chemistry.
This one-off low-point serves to take focus away from the music and you begin to wonder where the -Disney style’ show that Casablancas had promised has gone. A short US tour two months ago saw a backdrop involving moving parts, while Casablancas embraced the pop-direction of his solo work with multiple costume changes. Tonight there’re no such distractions and it’s a pity, as not only would it be fun to witness, but also it opens up the argument (for European critics) that Casablancas effortless image is drawn from the fact that he often makes little effort at all. This can often feed itself into the music and you begin to feel that each song could go either way; that the New Yorker isn’t as in control of the show as you might expect and that he has adopted a -let’s see what happens’ approach to his live gigs, while asking punters to cough up €28 for the journey.
As it transpires, tonight the journey is a delight. Like many performers, Casablancas can’t get enough of the attention, meeting each scream with wide-eyed joy. The fact that we’re having so much fun flows onstage, and means that it’s two-way traffic throughout. -Left and Right in the Dark’ is cheesy synth fun punctured by swirling guitar melodies and a gorgeous pop chorus, while an unnamed new song – a headlong punk-pop assault absent of electronic influence – will perhaps find it’s way onto the next Strokes record. It bodes well for the group’s future.
The Strokes again surface as Casablancas runs through -I’ll Try Anything Once’, a demo version of the bands’ -You Only Live Once’, which is delivered in the stripped-down, keys and vocal manner in which it appeared on the -Heart in Cage’ single. There’s then more than a hint of Sunday morning booze-soaked country, meshed with electronica and rock, on the pleasing -Ludlow Street’, while the biggest cheer of the night naturally comes with the festive -I Wish it was Christmas Today’ – Casablancas’ Ramones-like cover of Saturday Night Live’s Christmas ditty.
The superb 80s-infused -Glass’, with its -Final Countdown’ guitar solo, closes proceedings amid murmurs of disappointment at the set’s length – Casablancas plays for just over an hour, taking in 11-songs. This criticism, however, mostly speaks volumes for how good Casablancas has been tonight, rather than any feelings of leaving us short-changed. It could have gone anyway – and it probably will continue to do so for the 31-year-old – but tonight he delivered. All’s well that end’s well.
Photos by Kieran Frost.