Yeah Yeah Yeahs + Duchess Says @ Birmingham Academy – 9th December 2009

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It’s strange the way things pan out sometimes. One minute you’re at the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath preparing to review Black Gold and The Bookhouse Boys – Two bands I’d never heard before. But when an invite to review the gig comes from Black Gold’s PR manager, it’s rude to refuse and quite an audacious move when I discover Black Gold are the support act and not the main event. So, I’m just about to climb upstairs when my pocket starts vibrating with a message asking if I want to go and review Yeah Yeah Yeahs instead. Oh, and one more thing “They’re on in 30 minutes!” Sorry guys, I’m sure the gig rocked but come on? This is YYYs we’re talking about here…

Steve Gerrard PhotographySteve Gerrard Photography

Having raced to the Academy, parked up and made my way inside, I was somewhat relieved to find I had about 5 minutes to get a drink, find a good spot and wait and see what kind of night the assembled masses are in for. The entire floor area is completely rammed with shuffling space only. It’s hot, sticky and moist in here, and there’s an element of great expectation. Some might compare the atmosphere to that of a Louisiana summer night. Being English, I’m reminded more of steamed treacle sponge and that’s no bad thing.

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I managed to miss all of Duchess Says but the comments I heard were pretty mixed. Depending upon which side of the fence you’re sat; Annie-Claude was either a Kick-Ass Mentalist who spent most of the set in amongst the crowd creating havoc with security or a total wannabee who’s trying too hard to entertain. After pouring beer on her head A-C was seen to take a small sip of beer before spitting it out inconspicuously at the side of the stage. Who knows what Duchess Says are all about but knowing the choice of beers served at the O2 Academy I’m probably with A-C on this one.

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Right on cue Yeah Yeah Yeahs come out onto the darkly lit stage to muted applause and start playing a fairly subdued intro to ‘Shake It’. Suddenly the stage erupts with light revealing Karen O and the crowd explode into massive rapturous applause. As soon as Karen O emerges, the band, the lights, the giant inflatable eye and the audience dramatically come to life. Karen O is easily the focal point for everyone in the room. As a person she doesn’t appear all that tall in stature, but as a physical presence she is simply huge. Everything about her demands attention. From the way her gangly arms punch the air. The way her muted printed dress flows and clashes with the dazzling primary coloured fabric accessories that resemble Tibetan prayer flags. Karen O comes across as a person who exudes confidence and charisma by the bucket load. If Annie-Claude’s a wannabee then Karen O can only be the real deal. What helps is the fact she looks good – really good in fact!

Steve Gerrard PhotographySteve Gerrard Photography

‘Phenomena’ reminds us that YYYs are not merely a modern synth group but a bona fide band with roots held firm in Ohio’s avant-punk scene. Cutting straight into ‘Heads Will Roll’ seems like a pretty brave move. It’s easily the most recognisable track from their third album ‘It’s Blitz!’ and one I would have thought would have been included in the encore. Still, what better way to get the whole floor bouncing with much vigour so early into the set. The set flows with minimal vocal audience interaction but at various points throughout the show Karen O manipulates the crowd with delicate hand gestures or full scale attack moves – this is a woman in total control.

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‘Cheated Hearts’ had Karen descending from the stage into the photographers pit and thrusting the mic into the faces of the front row and encouraging them to sing along live to the chorus. Amazingly the solo members of the front row being picked on showed no hesitation and didn’t sound too shabby either.

For me though, the standout song of the evening had to be ‘Skeletons’. The primary coloured Tibetan prayer flags turn into a Poncho which when worn with Karen O’s covered head made her resemble a brightly coloured ghostly apparition which suited the haunting essence of the track perfectly. One song and one song alone made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. ‘Skeletons’ was that song.

Steve Gerrard PhotographySteve Gerrard Photography

Encores leave me with mixed feelings. We all know bands are going to come back out and play a few more. Encores with too longer a pause are just starting to come across too clichéd. Tonight’s encore is dedicated to David Pajo, ‘All the cuties in the front’ and we’re reminded that “Yeah Yeah Yeahs love Birmingham”. The encore features a touching, heart felt, pared down version of ‘Maps’ with the entire audience on backing vocals before finishing with the punching ‘Date With The Night’.

Tonight’s set included a good even split of their earlier art-punk tracks and their latest synth offerings. The aloof cool stage presence from the band’s earlier gigs seems to have gone and been replaced with a smiling Karen O and daft pose pulling band mates. Not once have I yet mentioned any of the other band members. As a studio act each member of YYYs has to be as important as the other. As a live act there is only member that matters. That member is without any doubt the mighty Karen O.

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Set List:
Shake It
Phenomena
Heads Will Roll
Pin
Black Tongue
Shame And Fortune
Dull Life
Gold Lion
Cheated Hearts
Skeletons
Hysteric
Honeybear
Zero

Encore
I Control
Maps
Night With A Date

Review – Lee Hathaway
Photos – Steve Gerrard

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