But last night was indeed another return visit by Stereolab — return visit because for the past few years they have regularly stopped by the Detroit Bar whenever they tour America. The booking for the place is done by Chris Fahy, a former tour manager of theirs, and they actually were the headline act when the venue opened years ago now, so I like to think of them as the ‘flagship’ band. They’ve gotten to know the place and the area well enough now that I was not at all surprised at the fact that when my friends and I met for dinner at Taco Mesa down the road, all of the band minus Laetitia Sadier were there having dinner as well, along with Atlas Sound.
While it’s my fourth time seeing them at the Detroit it’s my eighth time seeing them overall, stretching back to 1993 and their first tour in America as co-headliners with Unrest. If you had told me then that I’d be seeing them plenty of times over the years I might have been surprised — Stereolab have never been in my immediate all-time-favorites group in my head, but instead are just one of those good, dare I say ‘reliable’ bands. This isn’t to knock them, rather to point out that they keep on keeping on with a general work ethic and persistence that is quite admirable. For a group that made a big splash with a slew of stated initial goals — the excavation and reworking of a wide variety of ‘lost’ sounds and styles, a continuing lyrical focus on political and social issues through the lens of a modern, evolving Marxism — it’s actually very refreshing to see that they kept at it, having inspired any number of bands along the way and continuing to rework the basic combinations of their sound into differing results.
I say this well aware of some common criticisms of the group — that if you’ve heard one album you’ve heard them all (overstated but not without a kernel of truth) being the most regular. I still haven’t heard the new album Chemical Chords yet myself, so I came in ready for new stuff as it happened and otherwise wondering what they would play again. As it turned out, this was easily one of the peppiest sets I’ve ever seen from them — having worked through the crushing grief of Mary Hanson’s accidental death in London some years back, and restructured the group’s dynamic in performance accordingly, they seem to be on a new, comfortable high now. The core trio of Tim Gane, Laetitia Sadier and Andy Ramsay are well matched by the newer three members (newer being contextual — pretty sure one of the keyboardists has been with them now for about six years, and I really need to recheck their names!), the new songs split nicely between the immediately energetic and the gently reflective, and the various oldies were delivered with aplomb. Meantime, there was plenty of humor on stage, quick jokes being cracked, poses being struck and a general sense that they were comfortable with a venue they’ve enjoyed from the start and a crowd always happy to welcome them back.
As per usual I expected — and got — a slew of tracks from the album that really made their name, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, the 1993 effort that the band don’t like as a recorded artifact but which was their big American introduction via Elektra and which hot-wired a slew of imaginations from the moment of release. (Melodramatic on my part? I really think this to be the case — read Douglas Wolk‘s essay on the album in