Neon Trees at Webster Hall: Concert Review
The synth-rock band, playing to a mixed crowd, injected some safe energy into a lazy Tuesday night in the East Village.
It was hard to tell whether it was a haphazard and incongruous example of a rock absurdity -- a collision of a hollow cliche and a breathing example of its aspiring opposite -- or a clever wink of self-awareness: the kick drum's face read "Fame is Dead," while the lead singer bounded and squealed and even glittered in a hyper-conscious act he'd practiced a million times before.
Tyler Glenn, lead singer of Neon Trees, was born to lead a glam rock band; it's easy to imagine him, growing up in the '80s, pouring over the early years of MTV and obsessing over David Bowie's unending mutations. The influences are clear: glittering jacket like Michael Jackson (on his equally skinny shoulders); keyboards and lights like Duran Duran; dark, accented makeup like half the bands of the era, and nearly every group that has passed through New York City's Webster Hall over the past decade and a half, since The Strokes helped bring back the growl of the Reagan years' seedier times.
Yes, he puts on a show, with his band -- back home buddy Chris Allen on guitar, Braden Campbell on bass and a stand-in for pregnant drummer Elaine Bradley -- with a mix of grandeur and a personal touch that, given his 29 years, makes clear he must have dabbled in the emocore of the late '90s and early 2000s. Lights flash, he writhes, and he howls, as soaring, ready-made dance-rock hits ("Animal," "Hooray for Hollywood" and "1983," one of the band's first breakout hits and that which encapsulates their entire existence, soared particularly loud and strong) with just enough bittersweetness and angst in the lyrics to come back in chants from the mix of teens and twentysomethings in the audience.
The venue, in the heart of Manhattan's ever-gentrifying East Village, was the incidentally perfect choice for the show. Outside, bars were alive long after the concert, and just two blocks away, bongs and pipes and other easy-access, gateway drug paraphernalia sold on the street in plain sight. But as the crowd filed out and dispersed north to the subway (there were plenty of trains back to the suburbs still available) or east to their apartments, there was no danger in the streets; a corner of the city once given to hard drug dealers and the desperate homeless now hosts countless frozen yogurt joints, a colorful late night snack that can cause indigestion and some sleeplessness, but is ultimately sweet and harmless, nonetheless. Neon Trees is a band that traffics in the disaffected anthems of discomfited youth, swirled with a mix of pop and punk that makes you dance cares away, not shoot them up.
Glenn announced that the band had learned that their single, "Everybody Talks," had just gone platinum, and joked that, with one million records sold, it meant six million had been stolen. The crowd cheered, then laughed, and there was a bit of obvious guilt in the response: whereas once Bics, held overhead, lent a glow above the sweaty audience, it was now iPhones, snapping instagrams and, needing to chronicle the moment, Facebooking, that distracted the young concert-goers, many of whom, no doubt, had pirated the band's music.
But as Glenn said, a catchy song has a way of getting in one's head, and Neon Trees is nothing if not catchy and dance-worthy and ultimately contagious. The set lasted well over an hour, having started at 10:00; the opening act, JJAMZ, soared with their infinitely talented indie supergroup rock oddly and unfortunately miscast as the soundtrack to the crowd's entrance, with many still queuing throughout their set. It was the album drop date for the acronym group (comprised of Jason Boesel of Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley; James Valentine from Maroon 5; Alex Greenwald from Phantom Planet; solo act Michael Runion; and Elizabeth "Z" Berg of The Like), and the hope is that people heard enough to pick up the disc at the merch table. Or, at least pirate it when they got home.
Then came Penguin Prison, the curiously named six-piece that took Neon Tree's dance ambitions to another level, creating a sort of smooth, hipster Michael Jackson feel with their 45-minute set. When they sing "Don't F--k With My Money," you believe it's a future warning: there should be plenty of mainstream opportunity for this crew.
This was clearly Glenn and Neon Trees' show, though, and despite their relatively recent start, they've got some incredibly dedicated fans. With Bradley unavailable for a duet, Glenn called on one audience member who had been to 60 shows, and the sweet gesture ultimately led to an impressive vocal performance, at least as far as audience members, pulled in from the cold and without warmup, go. And Glenn himself entered the crowd, diving and surfing, light as a feather and tossed around before a security guard hoisted him back up on stage.
It was that kind of night: an energetic leap, a crowd working together, and ultimately, a soft return to safety in the arms of someone trained to look tough and assure that no one really gets hurt.