April 7, 2010
By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
He could be dabbing his morning oatmeal with a fork. He could be waiting at a bus stop by himself at 3 a.m. He could be asking a waitress which way to the men’s room.
Or he could be headlining the Vic Tuesday on a solo headliner tour. Does it matter? Whatever motivates Julian Casablancas to walk onstage to perform, it never appears to be an interest in walking onstage to perform. The guy is simply b-o-r-e-d.
Yet, the singer, best known as the lead vocalist for the Strokes, is kind of the Peter Falk of rock: a disheveled, meandering, clumsy boho from Soho, who, when backed by the Strokes’ machine-gunning rhythms and jackknife riffs, suddenly and unexpectedly comes alive. The tension created between their precision and his aloofness helped refresh the rock mainstream 10 years ago and has a grimy energy that holds up today.
Not that any of that happened on this brief solo set, meant to promote “Phrazes For the Young” (RCA), a first album under his own name. The six musicians performed dutifully behind their employer and did not step out of bounds. At about an hour, it felt more like a quickie promotional stop, with a stage commitment to match.
Which was a lost opportunity considering that solo outings tend to be catalysts for musicians to step beyond their comfort zone, where they can either explore side interests or expand their musical vocabularies in a setting that challenges them and us.
The Casablancas album has traces of that, but the show did neither. Instead, he did his best to shield his voice, much like his vocals on the album, which are heavily processed and cornered by synthesizers. The band on this tour emulated that approach; at times, their sheer bulk — an interchangeable mix of two guitarists, two drummers and two keyboardists — crammed Casablancas to the back wall where he could barely register.
That and the singer’s indifference alchemized a sense of purpose that was kind of beautiful to behold.
Singers like him will never make it look like they’re working hard because they know — and we know — a sudden turn with the right band will ignite something deep. There was a sense that could happen — a revival of “Hard to Explain” from the first Strokes album and “Left & Right in the Dark,” a pop anthem that rightfully sounded bigger than the room.
On “I’ll Try Anything Once,” a Strokes b-side, he sang accompanied by keyboardist in a moment of introspection that allowed him to reveal the fullness of his voice. The show-closer, “4 Chords of the Apocalypse,” did the same, tapping a soul singer’s reserves that were a revelation.
Those were highlights. “I don’t know why I’m stalling so much tonight,” he said near the end before launching into “I Wish it Was Christmas Today,” a song based on a “Saturday Night Live” skit. Then back to the lowlights.