In the world of “punk rock”, there’s a grand old tradition of putting on a really bad show. It’s a strange phenomenon. It isn’t so much the idea that a genre so intrinsically connected to contrarianism would produce bands who don’t give a fuck about concert pageantry, but that a show would be considered “bad” could become storied. Naturally, it’s a grass-is-always-greener situation. As cool as The Replacements reunion was, it’s not the same as seeing Paul Westerberg pre-sobriety, ruining the stage and slurring his lyrics. The live show is perhaps one of the few areas of the music industry that isn’t decaying, but it would be hard to argue that many bands possess the same sort of vitality that, say, a Hüsker Dü show circa ’85 had. This isn’t to say that there aren’t still bands that are putting in the work, on the contrary, Meredith Graves, Patrick Stickles, Marissa Paternoster, the dudes in Death Grips; these are all artists who possess intense, dynamic stage presence and bring a combustible energy to their shows that harkens back to the canonical hardcore acts. But, what happens when combustibility and spontaneity become second hand? Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (R.I.P) and Mac DeMarco became internet famous for their anarchic, destructive on-stage antics, with countless phone videos and social media interactions providing a thorough record of what one should anticipate at their respective shows. Folks showed up, and for awhile they got wanted, but eventually DeMarco gave it up, and Odd Future went their separate ways, as it would appear, rebellion only has so much cache when it’s expected.
In this context, what does one make of the Iceage show that went down at Mississippi Studios this past Tuesday? At around 9:20 PM openers Cairo Pythian stormed the stage, the lead singer slamming back a cocktail and checking this reviewer in the process. 9:20 pm being a significant distance from their purported 9:00 pm start time, the industrial duo dove into what couldn’t have been more than a four or five song set. Their sound is a neat one, something along the lines of a more pop-minded Nine Inch Nails or a scarier Perfume Genius; the male singer clad in all denim everything and dancing sultrily while a laptop and keyboard are wo-manned by a hyper elegant lady in a wool cape. Gender-flipping the girl/boy electronic act roles proved to be an effective move, one that maybe doesn’t come across as radical at first glance, but in hindsight was very much so. However, as quickly as they launched into their set, they were slinking back off stage, hopefully leaving the audience thinking about gender performatives in music, but likely little else.
Despite Cairo Pythian only utilizing about a third of their allotted stage time, Iceage still wandered onto the stage well past their 10:00 PM start time. In the interim, the small venue space began filling up and the small talk turned to audience expectations, as in expectations the audience had for themselves. Mississippi doesn’t necessarily attract a lot of bands that provoke a pit. On the occasion they do, Portland audiences have a bad habit of not rising to the occasion. Surprisingly, that ended being one of the few non-issues of the night.
Iceage took the stage with little fanfare, quiet, even a bit sullen. They grabbed their respective instruments and tore into a searing rendition of “On My Fingers” the opening track to 2014’s Plowing Into the Field of Love. On the album, “On My Fingers” is one of the lesser tracks, comparatively sedate and more notable as a strong contrast leading into the album’s sole single “The Lord’s Favorite”. In the live performance however, I struggled to recall what I shrugged at in the studio cut, with this rendition being quite the opposite of sedate. In fact, it was as ferocious as anything else played that night. The band soldiered on through two choice cuts from “Plowing Into the Field of Love” (“Abundant Living” and “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”) before hitting upon the aforementioned “The Lord’s Favorite” which is coincidentally the fan favorite at this point. Vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt announced the songs arrival with a snide “This song is about me” before the clipped, cow punk riff kicked in and Rønnenfelt began lurching about the stage. “The Lord’s Favorite” could be best described as a drinking song sung by someone who is already quite wasted, with Rønnenfelt spitting out each lyric as if the next thing that comes out of his mouth might be his half digested dinner. The lyrical content is equally striking, with Rønnenfelt adopting the persona of a sociopathic, wealthy hedonist who boasts of ordering “100 euro wine” and pleads his case to an ostensible stripper or sex worker all while continually threatening to “Tear in your hair”. It’s a monster of a song, crafting an entire world and corresponding characters over the course of 3½ minutes, all while remaining impossibly catchy. It also corresponded with the point in the night where things began to fall apart.
Like the protagonist of “The Lord’s Favorite”, Rønnenfelt spent the night trashed and cold. His onstage movements throughout the show could be described a mix of lurching and lunging, a startling mix of the passive and aggressive that made it difficult to gauge how in control he was. This air of danger lends itself to the sort of aforementioned combustible energy that makes live shows worthwhile, and in turn the pit that had threatened to burst out throughout the first three songs finally realized its potential. And then the band’s snare drum broke. This resulted in a quick ten minute hiatus, but that was all it really took to kill the band’s mood and momentum. Audience members who shouted their support and gratitude were met with a sharp glare from Rønnenfelt, his swagger and goodwill diminished. The folks at venue did a great job of being efficient and professional, getting the band a replacement snare in short order, but the band, likely wearied, played a couple more songs and finished out prematurely (as correlated by a setlist). In the band’s defense those last few tracks had as much energy in them as the previous ones, and Rønnenfelt is far from the first or last artist to perform while inebriated, in fact it was a boon to his on stage persona and would’ve likely continued to be had disaster not struck.
I understand, and believe, that Iceage can put on a real killer live show, in fact, I saw most of one. Does it matter if they have an off night? Could this be part of a larger band mythology, or does an artist fucking up not matter if its not on a national stage? Is there room for non-manufactured recklessness in live music anymore. I recently took in a Spoon show at the House of Blues in Boston. The venue was very corporate, had byzantine entry policies, and the crowd was populated by half interested college students. Spoon played a crisp, no frills set touching on all of the fan favorites and important tracks off their new album. There were no onstage antics, minimal banter and lights, and a quick encore, before they graciously left the stage. I gotta say, I kind of enjoyed the Iceage show more.