A concert review of Stereolab live at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, Calif.
The ease with which Stereolab consistently sells out its shows is a testament to the impotence and poor taste of commercial radio. The ‘Lab have been packing venues with fans for years now, without any support beyond the tier of college radio (which worships the band as if it heralded the second coming) or recognition from the corporate media establishment. Well, none aside from the inclusion of three of their songs in major television ads (one for the new Volkswagen Beetle, one for Mercedes-Benz, and most recently, for Qualcomm). The fact that not every town — heck, not even every metropolis — has a college radio station makes the band’s drawing power even more mysterious.
Case in point, San Diego, whose only indie-friendly stations broadcast at absurdly low wattage on the AM band or else must be tuned into via cable (read: are not tuned into at all). And yet on November 19, the Belly Up Tavern, a midsized venue located in the North San Diego community of Solana Beach, was packed to the gills with mop-topped post-rockers who — somehow, somewhere — have fallen under Stereolab’s aural spell. I didn’t even know San Diego had an indie- or post-rock scene until it showed up, en masse, at Belly Up. Much like the band itself, Stereolab’s fan base lurks beneath the surface, waiting for precisely the right moment to spring into view and score a dramatic hit-and-run victory for the forces of quasi-Marxist lounge pop.
Stereolab trades in the subtlest of subversions, hiding their leftist leanings behind a sugary wall of futuristic pop. I can’t remember how or when I first heard of them. Their albums just sort of started creeping into my record collection about the time I started DJing in college. They continue to infiltrate my CD rack to this day. There’s no antidote.If Stereolab’s albums are infectious, their live show is a stone-cold epidemic. Judging from their ultra-tight performance at Belly Up, Stereolab’s influence expands simply because it’s too potent to contain on albums or airwaves. Following a daringly eclectic set from Georgia’s Olivia Tremor Control — who earned bonus points for incorporating a tuba, a violin and not one, but two clarinets into their instrumental arrangements — Stereolab proceeded to kick down a two-hour set of bold but soothing gems from their back catalogue and their latest album, Cobra and Phases Group Play Voltage in the Milky Night. The set started with a radically revamped version of “Miss Modular,” from 1997’s Dots and Loops. Stereolab eschewed the album version’s jazzier elements and groovier tempos, favoring a more aggressive pace and sharper hooks. This set the tone for the rest of the performance, which retained the band’s seductive melodies and vocal harmonies but added a pointedly energetic spark and elements of improvisation.
This helped them spice up a set list that included numerous fan favorites (well, at least this fan’s favorites). “Metronomic Underground,” whose bass line conspicuously quotes Gil-Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” bubbled up at one point, featuring a slightly peppier tempo that made the song’s more droning sections come alive in ways that the album version misses. Selections from Cobra and Phases Group … such as “Infinity Girl” and “Op Hop Detonation” retained their central, rhythmic base but managed to show off vocalists Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen and keyboardist Morgane Lhote to much greater effect than the album’s more democratic balance allows for. Since Sadier and Hansen have such lovely voices and harmonize so brilliantly, this arrangement slathered some icing on an already decadent musical cake.
The Belly Up show also allowed me to isolate the two factors that make Stereolab such a sensational live band:
1) Stereolab holds nothing sacred. The band’s records are dense slabs of experimentation and occasional collaboration with outside musicians. The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan makes regular appearances on their albums, for example, and his Brian Wilson-esque touches always lend certain songs a very Pet Sounds feel. Stereolab smartly don’t even try to provide their live audience with an album-true performance. Rather, they comfortably reinterpret all of their material in order to explore the limits of a totally live stage show.
2) Stereolab plays often. The group seems to be on a perpetual record and tour cycle. I read somewhere that they record every single song that they write and release everything they record. An output this exhaustive, supported by a rigorous touring schedule, will grant any group of musicians a militaristic precision. The ‘Lab’s live shows bear this theory out, especially in the final minutes of their sets when they invite their opening acts on stage for a jam session. Olivia Tremor Control was more than up to this task Friday night, and Stereolab’s instrumental mastery allowed them to incorporate OTC’s members into a trippy, free-form drone-rock experiment that absolutely entranced the audience. It was as engrossing a concert moment as any I’ve experienced, substantial enough to sustain me until their next appearance … which, given their plans to record and release a new album in early 2000, could be any day now.