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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Yeah Yeah Yeahs @ Harley-Davidson Roadhouse, Summerfest

June 26, 2013

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ performance Wednesday night at Summerfest’s Harley-Davidson Roadhouse began, as does the group’s new album Mosquito, with the early standout “Sacrilege,” a furious soul number that builds to a rousing gospel climax. And as if to prepare for that big, clap-along finish, frontwoman Karen O dressed the part, channeling James Brown in a zebra-patterned cape and red bell bottoms as she shuffled across the stage striking poses. From their beginnings as art-school kids masquerading as dirty garage-punks, there’s always been an element of dress-up in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but in recent years it’s been more explicit. Several songs into the set O ditched her cape then reappeared in a studded leather jacket to sing “Zero,” a dance-rock song from 2009’s It’s Blitz that is, at its core, about how fucking cool it feels to wear a leather jacket. For the encore, she wore a crown.

The last time I saw Yeah Yeah Yeahs it was at Lollapalooza in 2009, and it wasn’t all that inspiring. The band was subbing for the Beastie Boys in a headlining spot, an honor usually reserved for only the biggest legacy acts, and they struggled to fill the stage. Even the aura of importance their work has gradually taken on over the years wasn’t enough to overcome the sense that, a mere three albums into their career, it simply wasn’t their time yet. Playing for a more reasonably sized crowd Wednesday night at Summerfest, though, filling the stage was never a problem—O had the crowd from her opening bellows and never lost them, even when the band played a couple of dubby, ugly tracks from their disappointing, directionless new album (wisely they got them out of the way early in the set).

In the early days of the rock revival, Yeah Yeah Yeahs owed their notoriety to O’s over-the-top stage presence. She was a wild woman, a feral sexual predator. She’s toned down those antics over the years, to the point where during last night’s softer songs she was often downright demure. The band is no worse off for that restraint, though. As thrilling as it is to watch her kick and flail her way through “Gold Lion,” or to get intimate with her microphone during “Heads Will Roll,” she was just as magnetic as she swayed and smiled to the ballads “Soft Shock” and “Maps.” Even during those reigned-in moments, she radiated a barely contained ebullience. She was always in costume, always happy to be performing.