Words by: Justin Gillett | Images by: Eric Lawson
Julian Casablancas :: 11.17.09 :: The Regency Ballroom :: San Francisco, CA
Exemplifying a sound and mentality of the metropolitan-based garage rock revival that emerged at the dawn of the millennium, Julian Casablancas, lead singer for The Strokes, seemed to embody everything characteristic and almost cliché about the genre. With rock star swagger and a voice that sounded like it was coming out of blown speakers, Casablancas was the epitome of what many bands wanted to sound and look like. The frontman rode a wave of success with boyish charm and a flippant attitude that propelled his band to critical and commercial success. But after releasing three consecutively digressing albums The Strokes seemed to have had enough – leading the band to an indefinite hiatus. This lull has provided time for some of the band's members to venture off and form their own projects. Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. started his eponymous solo act, and drummer Fabrizio Moretti formed Little Joy.
Not to be outdone or overshadowed by his cohorts, Casablancas took his next logical step and recorded an album of his own. The LP, entitled Phrazes for the Young (released November 2 on RCA), is basically what every listener would imagine a solo Casablancas record would sound like. It's very rich sounding, but it still manages to feel less intense and certainly less catchy than a Strokes recording. The album relies heavily on keyboards, drum machines, and studio mastery, but mainly focuses on Casablancas' voice and lyrics. The record is worthy of recognition but it really doesn't live up to the work that was produced with The Strokes.
Touring behind Phrazes has found the singer with a band of six hired guns – two keyboardists, two guitar players, one drummer, and one percussionist/multi-instrumentalist - to synthesize the album's electronic sound. During the band's recent layover in San Francisco at The Regency Ballroom nearly every song off Phrazes was played with a less polished and more intimate quality than their studio versions.
|Julian Casablancas :: 11.17 :: San Francisco, CA|
After watching Casablancas perform, it was clear that the now 31-year-old rocker was far less eager to partake in the old high jinks that were so characteristic of the singer in his earlier days. Drinking booze onstage and climbing up the rafters were (unfortunately) not part of his solo show. The concert opened with "River of Brakelights," the first single off Phrazes, and the song immediately set the tone for the performance to come.
Casablancas, clutching a microphone, was the obvious focal point of the show, and the other players seemed to serve as little more than musically inclined stage decorations. They rarely moved and they didn't seem to be enjoying themselves much. These backing musicians left a gap in the music that was luckily offset by Casablancas' natural performance ability.
The highlights of the show came quickly as the band played their second and third songs, spot on renderings of "Left & Right in the Dark" and "11th Dimension," probably the most listener friendly tracks off Phrazes. These songs represent the best part of Casablancas' solo endeavors. They're hooky, have memorable choruses, and are not bogged down by excessive guitar arrangements that oftentimes blight many Strokes songs.
Having only a small selection of songs to choose from off Phrazes, there was some anticipation to see if Casablancas would pull any songs from The Strokes' catalog. The only Strokes tune played, "You Only Live Once," was performed with one guitar player accompanying Casablancas' vocals while the other musicians stood to the sides of the stage. Rendering the song in a manner that strongly contrasted with the original version was a way for Casablancas to appease fans hungry for Strokes material and still manage to not come off as a desperate Strokes cover band.
|Julian Casablancas :: 11.17 :: San Francisco, CA|
With no drunken stage antics - so emblematic of many Strokes shows – the now older and a possibly wiser Casablancas performed almost timidly and without complete assurance in his ability. It could have been the lack of drunken courage that was absent during the performance, or it could have just been unfamiliarity with the new songs live, but there was definitely a shortage of looseness and jubilation on behalf of everyone onstage. This seemed to make the crowd slightly disgruntled that Casablancas was not his old self.
Not one to disappoint, Casablancas belted into the mic and seemed to propel his musicians, especially both guitar players, to keep a sharp eye on the details. The harmonized electric guitar solo on the downtempo "Glass" was carried out extremely well and provided an opportunity for the spotlight to be shifted off Casablancas. But it truly was the singer's show, and all onstage and in the crowd seemed to know this. Casablancas was the center of attention and he did an admirable job of performing his solo material – even if it's not up to par with his work with The Strokes.
Julian Casablancas tour dates available here.
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