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Live review: TV on the Radio at the Music Box

May 12, 2011 | 12:19 pm

Rarely has a band played with so much joy after such a blindsiding heartbreak as TV on the Radio did on Wednesday night at the Music Box. Less than a month after the post-punk crooners unexpectedly lost bassist Gerard Smith to lung cancer at 36 (and postponed this round of touring), the band paid him what must have been the most fitting tribute possible -– with a set underlining the vitality and humanity behind one of the most interesting guitar-based bands in America.

After early albums of minimalist tone-poems, a stab at more accessible rock (“Return To Cookie Mountain”) and an ambitious disco deconstruction (“Dear Science”), its new album “Nine Types of Light” turns their digital chilliness inside-out. It abides by the famous James Brown ethic that every instrument should be played like interlocking drums, but it has a grown-man confidence in pleasure as a better goal for music than pure confrontation.

Wednesday’s set used that sentiment as a starting point. Rather than take the occasion as a somber, austere memorial to Smith, the band wore some inspired Devo-ish hats and cracked wise onstage; the magnificently bearded guitarist Kyp Malone teasingly introduced singer Tunde Adebimpe with a string of unpronounceable nonsense.

A sense of impending doom haunts much of TVOTR’s music, but rowdy new songs like “New Cannonball Blues” and “Will Do” treated lyrical primal screams like “it's got me (messed) up and dried up and fed up, can't get up” as an occasion to get down already. “DLZ,” from “Dear Science,” set its spooky trip-hop to a boil that ended in an incantory singalong.  

Even older cuts like the noise-serrated Big Band number “The Wrong Way” and cryptically deadpan “Dreams” (with its now-even-more-haunting chorus of “All your dreams are over now”) came with a hopeful sensuality that felt like the only worthy response to real loss.

Given that all the serious sonic adventure is happening in R&B and pop radio today, it’s always a thrill to be reminded that rock 'n' roll, in the right hands, still can stir the blood. TVOTR’s records are meticulously fussy, but live they pare it down to bare, pulsing essentials (and having a production ninja like guitarist David Sitek in the band is always an asset for that job).

Guitars hit with dumb Stooges fury, synthesizers brightened the margins and multi-instrumentalist Jaleel Bunton had a bass sound that felt like an animal stalking you in the wilderness. Adebimpe’s wail remains one of the most evocative in rock.

And in the end, TVOTR’s more immediate desires won out. The falsetto-soul lullaby of “Province” felt as timeless as a standard, and by the time they got to the wire-tense single “Wolf Like Me,” several thousand people singing the outro of “We’re howling forever, oh oh” seemed a better parting sound for a friend than any church bell.

RELATED:

TV on the Radio's Gerard Smith succombs to lung cancer 

Album review: TV on the Radio's 'Nine Types of Light'

TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone talks Alice Coltrane

-- August Brown

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