There were far more people than I expected pressed up against the stage when I walked into Track 29 in Chattanooga, TN two Monday’s past. I checked my watch to make sure that I wasn’t late, but it was still about an hour before opener Deap Vally was set to take the stage. Arctic Monkeys after all, right? I shimmied my way as close to the stage as possible and tried to drown out the steady roar of crowd noise by talking with my brother. Apart from a few furtive glances at my watch, we spent most of our time watching the people around us shifting in their ever-narrowing personal space and listening to discussions of Humbug vs. Favourite Worst Nightmare. (note: nobody made a really great argument – but everyone knows that FWN is the better record).
But eventually the lights dimmed and a roar of applause and screams were hurled at the stage. Now I wasn’t that familiar with Deap Vally beyond a few cursory mentions that I had seen in various music publications, but I don’t think I was expecting what happened over the next 30 (or so) minutes. The stage was set very simply – a mic and guitar set at the front of the stage and a drum kit to the right of it. Singer/guitarist Lindsay Troy and drummer Julie Edwards strolled out on stage and took their places – and probably a dozen or more guys in the audience hit puberty simultaneously. Both women were rather provocatively dressed (i.e. neither wore much clothing) and exuded a feral sexuality that seems to crawl off the stage into the audience. And without much introduction, the duo leapt into their set.
Troy’s blistering guitar solos and Edwards’ pummeling, breakneck drumming meshed perfectly together, and the audience did their best to press closer to the stage. With a voice that shook the roof of the venue, Troy belted out songs of love, loss, and the dreaded “walk of shame” – all against thudding bass drums, hammering toms, and searing guitar riffs. But this kind of stripped down rock can all too easily come across as affected or reek of creative artifice but nothing about their set felt false. Tapping into some wellspring of raw, inclusive emotion (not the least of which was more than forthcoming from the audience), the duo showed exactly what a guitar, a set of drums, and a howling voice could do. It was loud, sweaty, sexy, and soaked in hot southern nights – I’d like to see The Black Keys pull that off.
But for many in attendance, Deep Vally’s raucous and lively set was just an unexpected bonus to what they had really come out for, that being The Arctic Monkeys – which is a shame really, given how remarkable their brief set turned out to be. I would imagine more than one person was inspired to head by the merch table after their performance to pick up a copy of their debut record, Sistrionix; I should know because I had the same thought. But after a sometimes sludgy, sometimes vicious, collection of songs and some banter about hairstyles, the band bowed out and left an excited crowd even more amped for the main act. There was a palpable current of energy running through the crowd at this point, thanks is no small part to Deep Vally.
When The Arctic Moneys did finally take the stage, it was to a deafening roar of applause and soon-to-be-hoarse voices shrieking in unison. Strobe lights were flashing behind them, smoke was being pumped onto the stage, and the band was silhouetted in a hazy blue light. And if you had any doubts about singer Alex Turner being a certified rock star, then over the course of the next 100 minutes (or so) you had those doubts completely dispelled. He preened and posed and made you believe that the days of singers like Jagger and Bowie never really ended.
The band opened with AM-cut “Do You Wanna?,” and its churning guitars, thudding percussion, and howled lyrics poured out from the stage to the audience and back again, leaving echoes of ringing melodies circling the ears of every person there. And while a good chunk of the evening was spent covering the territory from their latest record, they didn’t forget to revisit everyone of their older releases. “Dancing Shoes” and “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” — pulled from their debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not — were immediately recognized and sent the crowd into a frenzy of howls and clapping. The songs sounded even better here than on the record, and you really could feel the bass and percussion driven backbone rattling your rib cage.
They chose to play five tracks from Favorite Worst Nightmare: “Brainstorm,” “Teddy Picker,” “Flourescent Adolescent,” “Old Yellow Bricks,” and “Do Me A Favour.” And for a record that’s now over 6 years old, they sounded just as vibrant, frenetic, and throbbing as the day that album was released. The stage setup itself was fairly simple, with Turner out front and the band slightly back and to the side — but this wasn’t a case of the frontman setting himself apart from the band. He ran back and forth across the stage and played side-by-side with the other Monkeys, and everything just seemed to work perfectly. They drew a tracks from Humbug, with Crying Lightning” and “Cornerstone” being particular highlights. And while Suck It And See wasn’t represented to any large degree, “Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair” was still a roaring mix of pounding drums, elastic bass, and Turner’s fierce vocals.
AM was definitely the bulk of the night though, with the band playing 8 of the album’s 12 tracks. They slashed through the guitar squall of tracks like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and “R U Mine?,” with the audience singing along to every word. And even though they’ve been playing far larger venues and arenas on their current tour, it was refreshing to see them give it their all in a smaller setting. They didn’t hold anything back, and everyone in attendance knew that the building was barely able to contain the music being thrown off the stage. Turner was far more personable with the audience than I had expected — though that expectation was based on practically nothing but conjecture on my part — and of course, he didn’t forget to work in Chattanooga’s name in a song, which obviously threw fans into an even wildly frenzy.
This was arena rock squeezed into an 1800 capacity room. Walls reverberated with thick basslines and hammering percussion. Voices were exhausted and muscles were tired. But the music never stopped, and as we all walked out of Track 29, the last lingering notes of “R U Mine?” kept us company on the leisurely stroll back to our cars and on the ride home. My ears were ringing and continued to be so for quite some time, but it was worth it. Arctic Monkeys had played for each of us, and nothing would change that.