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Noise Live: The Strokes

January 27, 2004 - 11:01 AM

By Doug Brod

The first thing you notice is the drum riser. It’s got to be at least three feet high. What is this, a Kiss concert? Then you gasp at the lighting rig, an intimidating apparatus that hangs over the stage like the Iron Giant’s claw. Three years ago, the Strokes were playing to sweaty throngs in East Village scum pits; since then, they’ve performed at festivals in front of tens of thousands. Simply negotiating the transition from a 200-capacity dive to a spotless 5,600-capacity enormotorium attached to a sports arena would cow most headliners. But on the first date of a two-night stand in support of their sophomore album, Room on Fire, New York’s finest delivered a terse, 65-minute, encore-free set that was something of a revelation, even if the overall effect was akin to eating a PB&J at Le Cirque.

Much has been made of how Room on Fire is a virtual carbon copy of Is This It, only tougher (and maybe not as catchy). With its dank-basement ambience, it does sound exactly like the debut. But, Julian Casablancas’ walkie-talkie vocals to the contrary, the Strokes value clarity. On record, every instrument is distinct, as if each band member is performing inside his own musty closet, but live, the songs were transformed, the Theater’s superb sound mix making them dense and full-bodied without losing any grit.

Flanked by stylin’ guitarists Nick Valensi (striped blazer) and Albert Hammond Jr. (thrift-shop suit), Casablancas had two stage moves: Either he faced forward, hands wrapped around the mic, or he strutted around with one metaphorically rich hand behind his back. Calm bassist Nikolai Fraiture stood sphinxlike and intense. Attentive timekeeper Fabrizio Moretti kept his head bowed throughout most of the set.

Although Casablancas was battling a throat infection, the opener, Room’s extraordinary ballad “Under Control,” found him crooning in a fine voice. Since the new album had been on the street for only two days, Is This It’s “Hard to Explain” got the biggest reaction; many in the audience jumped up and down in unison while the band stopped on a never-ending series of shiny dimes. On “The Modern Age,” Hammond punished his strings while shaking his ample ’fro, then segued into Room’s retro-futurist “12:51” -- which, along with “The End Has No End” and “Automatic Stop,” proved that those Cars-style keyboard riffs were indeed coming from guitars.

The illusion of total slickness was shattered late in the show, when Casablancas brought out opening act Regina Spektor for an awkward, offhand duet on a new song featuring vague, spy-movie guitar. Not exactly something Kiss would do, and a good thing, too.

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