Stereolab at the Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa

No, it’s not much of a picture. Had I been closer, a different story (and there were a lot of fellow iPhone users taking advantage of that fact).

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 Marooned sometime if you haven’t.) They didn’t dominate the set by any means but they were the ones that got everyone going the most among the older tracks, and I always think of the band wanting to prove a point with their performances from them, to show how they would prefer to have them heard.

The real surprise was the final song of the encore — “Jenny Ondioline,” a song I honestly thought I was never going to hear them play again. When they played that first time in 1993 it was part of their massive sounding but admittedly monochromatic set, and while it’s gone down as one of their key tracks since — I refer to Douglas’s essay again for a better appreciation of it — in its full twenty minute form I thought it wasn’t going to get an airing anytime soon. But lo and behold, Tim launched into that dramatic guitar opening, my eyebrows shot up and the cheers from others were loud and long. A fantastic performance and a fine way to wrap things up.

Two brief concluding thoughts — Laetitia, as you can kinda tell from my photo I guess, is and remains one of the most flat-out stellar looking people in music. Natural elegance, perfect genetics, an apparent inability to seem like she’s aging at all, call it what you will. But last night I was reminded again just how much women love her — every time I’ve seen them there’s been at least one or two very, very loud expressions of love and/or lust from someone female in the audience, and this was no exception. There was a moment where a feedback problem was giving the band grief, and at one point between songs Laetitia stepped to the mike and asked the sound guy, “Mark, what do you think is causing the feedback?” Before Mark could reply, a woman two or three people over from me shouted out “Because you’re so FUCKING HOT!” Mass cheers at this, smiles from the band and a gentle one from Laetitia herself.

Second, I should say that Atlas Sound’s opening set was a treat — I’ve seen some good openers for Stereolab over time and this ranked up there — and after the show my friends Keith, Johana and I noticed him sitting outside having a smoke and I chatted with him briefly. Friendly guy! Hope the rest of the tour goes well!


6 Responses to “Stereolab at the Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa”

  1. captain groovy Says:

    actually i feel as though the band have regained their muse on this album.For awhile the albums seem to have been focused on the sound & arrangements & not the songs.I enjoyed all of them but in an academic this is interesting kind of way.The new one just seems peppier & while this is apparently by design it has yet to diminish my enjoyment.

  2. Ned Raggett Says:

    Sounds positive to me! It apparently divided a lot of long time fans, we’ll see when I get around to it, but it’s just always nice to see a now-veteran band keep it going with all the energy one could want.

  3. AZ Ray Says:

    Nice summary Ned. Having now seen both of the first two gigs of the tour, I can honestly say my appreciation of the Chamical Chords album has grown immensely on me. The title track, while mellower than most of the album was so beautifully played by the groop, and sung by Laetitia that it is among my top 25 Stereolab songs with a bullet.
    I agree about Jenny Ondioline. An absolute mind blower that they played the full length album version. While I don’t recall seeing Laetitia play guitar on Saturday at the Detroit, she did play (left handed) a blue-ish guitar Sunday at the Glass House in Pomona.
    The two set lists were as close to perfect as I could have hoped for, having made the drive from Phoenix to see the band. Arizona is somewhat of a wasteland when it comes to
    visits by the coolest of the cool. I certainly didn’t mind the drive time. Having the chance to realize meeting each band member before and after both gigs was certainly an added bonus. The capper – personal pics of myself with Laetitia (and she literally let her hair down just for me) and one with Simon Johns, the deftly groove-provider on the bass guitar. I’m guessing Captain Groovy (also in this post) is also in my picture with Simon.
    Setlist highlights for me:
    Percolator – outstanding choice for an opening number. I love it when bands start of with a classic rather than something new
    Neon Beanbag – proof to me that they still have that creative spark that drew me to them back in 1993
    Ping Pong – another favorite from a long time ago
    Mountain – !!!!!
    Three Women – the stop start drum break that Andy incorporated into the live rendition not featured in its studio counterpart. Laetitia admitted to me in Pomona after the show that the songs are so much fun to play live. Definitely a treat with the fantastic rhythm. Andy is an absolute frickin’ beast on this number. Simon matches him step for step. Instant top 10 fave for me.
    French Disko – Julien Gasc on keyboards and more importantly backing vocals, helps ease the loss of Mary Hansen to allow songs which require the harmonies of two voices are once again a possibility, a reality, and a sonic orgasm to veteran fans of the groop like you and I.
    Lo Boob Oscillator – played in the setlist in both shows in So. Cal. Julien began the intro while Laetitia was still trying to introduce it. Funny moment.
    John Cage Bubblegum – Refried Ectoplasm was indeed well represented on both nights with four songs.
    Cybele’s Reverie – played in Costa Mesa, but not Pomona
    Emergency Kisses – from, as Simon Johns put it, “the brown album”. Played in Pomona, but not Costa Mesa.

    Stereolab fans are friendly and warm, like the groop themselves. May Stereolab be with us for many more years. And may we all age as gracefully as Laetitia, the most stunningly beautiful women in music, if not the world.

  4. Ned Raggett Says:

    Great overview! Thanks, you’ve provided more of the detail I couldn’t (I admit this was partially due to a massive stomachache I had during the set — undercut my enjoyment, I admit!)

  5. jeff w Says:

    One too many tacos beforehand, Ned? 😉

    AZ Ray – nice one. You should repost some of that on the ‘lab forum.

  6. Ned Raggett Says:

    Nachos, more accurately. 😉

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