In a haze of expectation and accomplishment, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah played the Middle East in Cambridge in support of an album that created, embodied, and beckoned noise. The results were still out on Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s sophomore album, Some Loud Thunder (QRO review), when the night’s performance had been booked so many months ago. Like a politician anxiously monitoring the exit polls on the eve of an election, CYHSY must have watched the ticket sales for the current tour with a certain sense of expectation. Maybe even unease. After all, the band had declined the services of every major label that had come faithfully scratching at their door like lovesick puppies on the heels of their self-titled, self-released juggernaut of a debut album.
All corporate suitors were dutifully sent packing as CYHSY took their fate in their own hands and self-released their follow-up album. The gutsy move was a call to arms for like-minded midlevel bands who often trade away a measure of artistic freedom for the dubious honor of signing deals with high-profile labels only to get lost in the corporate shuffle of musical-chair music executives who don’t know how to, and perhaps don’t care to, promote a band with anything resembling a human touch and an ear for music. Still, the move left some industry insiders scratching their heads, wondering how the band that had turned down the corporate safety net would manage.
Judging by the sold out show last Monday night (tickets unavailable for months, with a healthy contingent of scalpers trolling the sidewalk), Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are managing just fine, thank you.
After a couple of openers the headliners, CYHSY, appeared around eleven. The Sargent brothers, Lee and Tyler, icons of nebbish serenity, positioned themselves at the extreme right and left flanks of the stage; Robbie Guertin and Sean Greenhalgh filled out the middle and provided a backdrop for the exotic vocal contortions of singer/guitarist Alec Ounsworth.
Sporting a beaten pork-pie hat, a formfitting, pink-and-white striped shirt, and a hastily-hewn moustache, Ounsworth looked less like the indie rock demigod he has become, and more like a down and out Greek fisherman who can’t decide whether he is gay or just really likes Depeche Mode. Unsurprisingly, Ounsworth drew most of the spotlight during the night. Happily, the attention was well-deserved. It is impossible to listen to CYHSY without being reminded of some of the great rock’n’roll voices to have emerged from the underground since rock first found its voice. Think of howling mysticism of Grace Slick; the otherworldliness of David Bowie; the breathy, guy-next-door sensualism of Gordon Gano; or the virtuosic flights of Thom Yorke. Yet, for all these stratospheric comparisons, the best compliment you can pay Ounsworth is that his voice fits the tenor and spirit of CYHSY. Like Michael Stipe, for example, Ounsworth manages to shine without ever falling too far behind or ahead of a band that is none too shabby itself. That being said, his voice remains a love-it-or-hate-it, Neil Young-esque proposition.
The audience at the Middle East more than loved it: they unleashed paroxysms of adulation, singing along to most songs by heart. The set list remained fairly conservative. The band opened with a song from the old album, then dipped into Some Loud Thunder for the next few songs before heading back to the comfortable confines of established faves. Don’t expect any great histrionics from CYHSY. They are not an ostentatious band. But there is a difference between playing and playing, even for a band that keeps it cool. Not until the unmistakable opening bars of distorted synth and high-pitched guitar tweak of old favorite “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth” did CYHSY really find their groove, throwing off the road-weariness of the relentless tour. Feeding off the feverish crowd- tightly-packed and bouncing in time to the straining, sprinting golden passages- Ounsworth held forth on the dreamlife of a country boy fallen in love with the big city. My god, there was even body-surfing for a brief moment. The night had begun.
Hits off the first album made up the rest of the night and got the crowd hot and heavy for an encore. As the band evacuated the stage, an encore-inducing “Clap Your Hands!” chant brought on the inevitable. Dutifully, the fivepiece reemerged. The encore songs, from the new album, marked a new tone for the band. Darker. Malevolent. Ounsworth, playing a bit fast-and-rough with the audience’s affection, chided the sea of adoration for the knee-jerk marketability of their too-cute chant. (Ounsworth swore he had never heard anything so clever! That’s more of a stab at the band’s calculated measure of self-prostitution than at a guileless fandom, but who’s keeping score?). In the same vein, the new anxiety of the new album, full of washes of criss-crossing guitars and nervous synth tics, closed out the finale and showed us something we haven’t seen before: a blacker Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, whistling darkly beneath the burden of increased expectations in a happy agony of hard decisions and long roads traveled.
Opener Delta Spirit, a sixpiece spitting out well-formed, countryboy gospel rock, started the night.
Quentin Stoltzfus, and his five-piece side project, including all three members of Apollo Sunshine, delivered a beard-heavy quotient of indie jam-rock in between.