The questionable charm of their records come alive on a drizzly night in the West Midlands. Coventry (November 1)
I’m going to commit suicide onstage tonight, dude,” drawls Cage The Elephant frontman Matt Shultz, his blonde mop, specs and sulky demeanour giving him the air of a gonk-rock Kurt Cobain. “Set myself on fire or something…”
It’s a couple of hours before the opening night of his band’s latest tour of destruction, and eye contact – much like remotely serious answers to NME’s questions – is being kept to an absolute minimum. Shuffling awkwardly in their tourbus seats, these Kentucky-via-London funk-rockers are a million miles from the hard-partying, Jägerbombing troupe we ordered from the indie catalogue. Their pre-gig takeaway fried chicken is already hours late, it’s a miserable rain-sodden night and the band are battling monstrous Halloween hangovers: Cage The Elephant, this is what it’s like to be sent to Coventry. Genial guitarist (and Matt’s brother) Brad aside, they look like they’d rather be anywhere but the West Midlands tonight.
So far, so damp squib, then. When they finally bound onstage well past the witching hour, though, they’ve undergone something of a transformation: the sulks are dropped in favour of raucous energy, the sullenness swapped for boundless charisma and frowns wiped away for ridiculous gurns.
But at this point we should level with you: as far as NME’s concerned, to borrow their own lyric, Cage The Elephant are often very much “in one ear and right out the other” on their self-titled debut album: shameless retro dogshit that’s worryingly in thrall to berks like Kid Rock, Jet, and most criminal of all, Uncle Kracker.
Their exuberance in the live arena does make a pretty decent fist of papering over the cracks, however, with the southern rawk inflections wisely left on the tourbus with the chicken bones. The likes of ‘Back Against The Wall’ and ‘James Brown’, for example, are afforded a more raw, punkish, Stooges-ish sonic palette, while ‘In One Ear’ is bellowed back at the band like a true terrace anthem. It’s all young, dumb, terrifically mindless fun: Matt jitters, stagedives and delivers his rap-rock sermons on ‘Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked’ and ‘Tiny Little Robots’ like a demented Bible Belt preacher man, while his bandmates pull a succession of stadium-rock poses more befitting of the nearby Ricoh Arena than tonight’s sweatpit. It’s exhilarating, 100mph stuff, with the band not even considering stopping for breath during their half hour of relentless funk’n’roll.
As the set reaches its climax with a frenetic ‘Free Love’, Matt cuts his customary dash for the mixing desk on a sea of hands, getting no further than the front couple of rows before collapsing in a heap. A throng of sweaty ecstasy, the crowd around him – which features at least one errant member of locals The Enemy – raise him back band-wards.
He struggles to his feet and leaves the stage a total hero.Post-gig, and the debauchery we ordered finally arrives: the rider’s destroyed near-instantly in a blaze of Jägerbombs, NME spies a certain C-list Brit actress in the corner of the dressing room and the band argue over whether to present their testicles or arseholes to our snapper. Downstairs, a pair of female admirers try desperately to talk their way into the melee before being sent away disappointed. “They weren’t good-looking enough, lads,” explains one of the band’s crew in classic Spinal Tap-style, brandishing Polaroids for the band to sign as a makeshift booby prize. The band’s hapless manager, meanwhile – think a cross between Mark from Peep Show and Teacher from The Bash Street Kids – tries in vain to rein in the chaos, going berserk at his charges for getting up to no good in the showers.
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Even Matt finally looks like he’s enjoying himself, cracking smiles and discussing Manuelgate with NME. “I’m like Clark Kent, dude,” he explains before the bleary-eyed band slope towards the tourbus with dawn fast approaching. “As soon as the glasses come off, I turn into a rock’n’roll Superman.” From suicidal to superheroes: all in a night’s work for rock’s messiest new party-monsters.