Madison Square Garden, New York City Saturday, April 1st
If the return of [a]The Strokes[/a] has taught us anything, it’s that friendships can be fleeting. The gang of roguish street urchins who once prowled New York’s Lower East Side – falling out of bars, making fun of policemen and putting the children of leather jacket salesmen through college – are now just a memory. Despite the quintet’s caginess about the events of the past five years, it’s become increasingly clear that their alliance has been damaged by contrasting priorities, internal indolence and probably, in the case of at least one member, some pretty serious pharmaceutical distractions.
They’re not the first band to experience that slow and painful drifting apart as individuals, and they won’t be the last. But the fact that fourth album [b]‘Angles’[/b] saw the light of day at all demonstrates that, for all their differences, Fab, Nick, Nikolai, Albert and Julian have at the very least figured out that [a]The Strokes[/a] are bigger than any single errant ego, tumultuous friendship or Class A stimulant – and tonight at Madison Square Garden, it’s an equation that yields the most exciting results of their stuttering comeback so far.
As cocooned as they may have been in recent times, they do still have enough self-awareness to realise that some reintroductions are needed, and the first of them comes via a thrilling version of [b]‘Is This It’[/b]. Moretti’s instantly recognisable beat lights the touch paper, Hammond’s guitar and Julian’s vocals weave around each other seamlessly, and by the time Fraiture’s bass kicks in, 12,000 people have fallen in love all over again.
It’s a flying start but [a]The Strokes[/a] almost instantly hit hyper-speed by unleashing a dizzying, 30-minute blitz of non-stop classics which emphatically atones for their years of inactivity. A surging [b]‘Reptilia’[/b] provides the evening’s first moment of euphoria (despite being only the second number of the set), while [b]‘Hard To Explain’[/b] is played with such a taut, urgent edge it feels as if the band have been as eager to play these songs again as we’ve been to hear them.
“When I was writing that in my bedroom, I never thought in a thousand years we’d be playing that shit right here at MSG,” admits an obviously humbled Casablancas before trying to engage Hammond in a little banter. “This is a great place to watch basketball – ever been to a game here?” The guitarist’s reply is a terse and slightly bemused, “No”. The days of them enjoying a hot dog and cheering on the Knicks together arm-in-arm may be long gone, but that’s OK. [a]The Strokes[/a] don’t have to be best mates anymore, they just have to work together – and on tonight’s early evidence, they can certainly still do that.
Even the usual finale of [b]‘Last Nite’[/b] is tossed in early doors, and with nerves dispatched, Casablancas decides to reacquaint himself with [a]The Strokes[/a]’ hometown crowd. Instead of continuing to cling to his microphone for dear life the way he has for the best part of a decade, he uses the panicked and pulsating bass throb of [b]‘Juicebox’[/b] as an opportunity to stroll through the crowd. Even as the inevitable mobbing ensues, his newly developed vocal prowess remains intact, and there’s a richness and colour in virtually everything he sings.
They would never admit it so directly, but this splurge of crowdpleasers and unusually close engagement is essentially rock’n’roll speak for, “Sorry we disappeared up our own arses for a while, but we’re back now.”
Front-loading the set with so many classics is not only a hugely welcome gift for the fans, it’s also a canny move on the band’s part. With such huge momentum accrued, The Strokes can tackle their newer material.
For all of [b]‘Angles’[/b]’s slightly awkward and occasionally overproduced new wave leanings, the band stick rigidly to their drums, bass and guitars tonight, and as a result, the uncertainty clears to reveal some superb songs. The likes of [b]‘You’re So Right’[/b] and [b]‘Life Is Simple In The Moonlight’[/b] are much leaner and more energetic beasts than the ones saddled with years of confusion and malaise on [b]‘Angles’[/b]. And as far as exercises in committing to the moment go, you can’t get much better than the sight of a swashbuckling [a]Elvis Costello[/a], who bounces on to the stage, pays no mind to his malfunctioning microphone and duets with the group on an imperfect but riotously entertaining version of [b]‘Taken For A Fool’[/b].
In the broader context of the set, it’s an unessential moment but for the band themselves, it’s crucial because for the first time tonight (and possibly the first time in years), they look like they’re having fun. As they leave the stage before the encore, heads shake in disbelief and cheeks are blown out in exhaustion as shock, awe and even relief circulate the crowd – but The Strokes aren’t finished. Upon their return, a beguilingly tender version of [b]‘Ask Me Anything’[/b] is dished up before [/b]‘The Modern Age’[/b] ensures that the back catalogue is completely mined.
Over the space of an hour and a half, the band have gone from being almost apologetic to ascendant, and it’s a transformation that’s completed by [b]‘Take It Or Leave It’[/b], which sees Casablancas going walkabout again, this time ending up in the seated area beside the stage and singing the chorus with a ferocity that is nothing short of astonishing. Personal sacrifices be damned, because [a]The Strokes[/a] have rediscovered their mojo, and there isn’t a game of basketball in the world that can compete with that rush.