OK Go Brings Big Fun to the Troubadour: Concert Review

Michael Gordon
Visual tricksters deliver large-scale thrills and close-up fan engagement in small space.

Best known for wild viral videos, the group is unifying its zestful live approach with a tightened sound for its next record, due this fall.

Finally, four years after a confounding third album and a few months before the arrival of what could be a career-high fourth disc, the odd wrinkles in OK Go’s ambitious, meticulous plan are beginning to get ironed out.

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When Of the Blue Colour of the Sky surfaced to wildly mixed reviews at the start of 2010, its leadoff track couldn't have been better named: “WTF?” Surely that was the reaction among many fans who a half-decade earlier had come to love the L.A.-via-Chicago group's deceptively sunny power pop, often cleverly packaged in eye-grabbing, how’d-they-do-that viral videos, like the treadmill choreography clip that scored them their first Grammy in 2007.

In place of more hook-driven glee on the order of “Here It Goes Again” or the earlier hit “Get Over It,” however, was a collection as distant and diffuse as it was sonically adventurous and teeming with not-so-subtle nods to Prince at his most hermetically funky. Producer Dave Fridmann, long known for distinctively icy productions for the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev and others, had seemingly sucked the joy out of OK Go with the band's full consent.

But now, based on four cuts from the band's forthcoming effort Hungry Ghosts (due in October from Paracadute) that were recently released as an EP — as well as the quartet's terrific, confetti-showered set Tuesday night at the Troubadour — the post-breakout pieces of this modernist gem of a group are starting to fit. First single “The Writing’s on the Wall,” reminiscent of MGMT’s debut material and powered by a winsome bass line unabashedly stolen from New Order, is an ideal example. Better still, it’s been unveiled in OK Go’s most wow-inducing short flick yet, a one-take series of impressive optical illusions that must have taken weeks, maybe months, to properly prep and execute.

Along with its new companions — the synths-on-overdrive liberation of “Turn Up the Radio,” the Daft Punk-ish disco of “I Won’t Let You Down” and the anthemic yearn of “The One Moment,” all played this night — these high-contrast teasers prove that, even with Fridmann once again weighting down details from behind the boards, the group clearly has restored some of the fun that went missing last time around.

Further proof: their intimate West Hollywood delight, a marvelous performance (scheduled for replay Wednesday at the Echo) that stuffed an amphitheater-ready production into the relatively tiny Troub and managed to reinvigorate selections from throughout their catalog, though especially transitional pieces from the previous collection. Flanked by large screens and sometimes shrouded by a drop-down scrim, everything coated in cutting-edge visuals, the band proved its musical direction is once again in sync with the ever-clever presentation of it.

And that’s the niftiest trick OK Go pulls off, for all the gimmicks under the sun would be meaningless if they came attached to inconsequential tunes. Yet, like Devo before them, there’s a delectable duality in this outfit’s approach; the relatable soul-searching redolent in front man Damian Kulash’s vocals are attractively wrapped in a playful, neon-colored shell. Deftly traversing a line between being hopelessly bittersweet and becoming too cute to be taken seriously, the group manages to have it both ways, crafting memorable pop nuggets that succeed on their own terms while simultaneously enlivening the tomfoolery that keeps crowds coming back to see what they might concoct next.

Kulash & Co. – multi-instrumentalists Andy Ross and Tim Nordwind (who looks a bit like a bearded Mr. Peabody) and drummer Dan Konopka (a precise timekeeper) — go to inviting lengths to engage their largely collegiate-and-younger fans on a friendly level not seen since Barenaked Ladies were popular. The charm of Tuesday’s show lies as much in between-song banter as butt-wiggling singalong ditties: When Kulash chatted about seeing Jimmy Kimmel earlier this week (“He’s smaller than you think”) or why he plays a junky amalgamation of a guitar discovered in a New Orleans junk shop (“it sounds amazing!”), it felt as though we were all hanging out at a party at the band’s house.

That sensation only grew throughout the 75-minute set, peaking when the singer set up his mic stand and acoustic guitar in the thick of the crowd for a tender rendition of “Last Leaf.” Before that came an impressive piece of on-the-spot collaboration, as Kulash patched together an audience-generated drum pattern on his iPhone, which Konopka then expanded for the backbone of an ingenious version of “There’s a Fire.” And while the lanky vocalist ambled his way back to the stage after his solo spotlight, Nordwind indulged a Q&A session. (“Can I take a selfie with you and the band?” someone asked. “That’s not a selfie!” Kulash fired back from the wings.)

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One attempt at illusion, for “I’m Not Through,” had to be abandoned because the signature sign above the Troubadour’s stage couldn’t be turned off. But there was all that confetti, enough to rival what the Flaming Lips take on tour — furious flurries of the stuff, which for song after song blanketed the room, until red-white-and-blue mounds of it high as anthills remained when the house lights came up. “I promise you will have this (stuff) in your underpants for three weeks,” the singer insisted. Consider it OK Go’s way of reminding just how much fun they provide.

Set list:

Upside Down & Inside Out
You're So Damn Hot
The Writing’s on the Wall
I Won't Let You Down
I Want You So Bad I Can't Breathe
This Too Shall Pass
There’s a Fire
Last Leaf
Get Over It
I’m Not Through
Do What You Want
Turn Up the Radio
The One Moment
Here It Goes Again

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