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Live review: Friendly Fires and Phenomenal Handclap Band at the El Rey

August 25, 2009 |  1:22 pm
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The Friendly Fires have got it. It’s as simple as that.

They’ve got that ever elusive, unquantifiable quality that results in something genuinely thrilling when they get together and perform in front of an audience.

But Friendly Fires have had it going on for a while now. Such was evident at one of their earliest L.A. shows opening for Lykke Li at El Rey in 2008, when they all but blew her out of the room with their intense stage show. Combining the sonic ambitions of early U2 with the English funk of Gang of Four, and an advanced degree in dance floor aesthetics, even the early arrivals in the audience seemed shocked by how good it was.

The band proved it wasn’t just a fluke when they played a triumphant set at this year’s Coachella Festival to an overflowing Gobi tent. In some ways, that made last night’s sold-out Friendly Fires headlining show at El Rey something of a victory lap. But instead of basking in their relative success, they performed like a band with plenty left to prove with an absolutely stunning performance that cemented their status as one of the best live bands out there right now.

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The night started with the ambitious Phenomenal Handclap Band, an intriguing live outfit from New York that can be best described as prog-disco couched in heady '60s psychedelic pop. It’s a reach, but when their shambolic sound all comes together, the results are impressive. Invoking images of the Jefferson Airplane (and on one specific occasion the Tom Tom Club) given a sturdy Tom Moulton remix, songs like “I Been Born Again” are as much Woodstock as Coachella. 

But from the opening beats of “Lovesick,” Friendly Fires and hyper-kinetic lead singer Ed Macfarlane grabbed a hold of the evening and didn’t let go. Macfarlane is a real singer, attacking the songs with an unabashed zeal comparable to a young Bono.

In between shooting for those soaring vocal melodies, Macfarlane whips all over the stage in an amazing personification of the phrase “Dance like no one’s watching.” Moving like a man possessed with the spirit of "Seinfeld's" Julia Louis-Dreyfus' dancing Elaine on ecstasy, it would be easy to get tired watching him if the music wasn’t so energizing.

Closing with their now-customary last encore “Ex Lover,” the band basked in the overwhelming response from the crowd, eager for even more music. Fans will get their wish soon enough, as Friendly Fires have already scheduled a return date to L.A. with a show at the Fonda on Nov. 26. Tickets go on sale Saturday at 10 a.m.

--Scott T. Sterling

Top photo: Friendly Fire's Ed Macfarlane
Middle photo: The Phenomenal Handclap Band
Credits: Scott T. Sterling

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