Live in San Francisco, Oct 20 2018
Photochronicle by Corgam
Alex Turner & Jamie Cook display mad karate skills during the final chords of "Brainstorm"
Arctic Monkeys ended their five year absence in San Francisco with two sold-out shows at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, the city’s largest indoor venue. Hardcore fans lined up the night before to secure front row spots. Quite the commitment!. Alex Turner, the band's eminent frontman, was surprisingly modest; he moved away from the cocky rockstar behaviour he displayed five years ago. This time, although antics were expected, he addressed the audience sporadically and mainly to introduce songs here and there, but remained a quiet frontman for the most part, very much like his younger days, paired with the flamboyant mannerisms he’s yet to perfect. He did channel his last shadow puppet during “Pretty Visitors” by getting on top of his piano and acting as if he were swimming for his life, then crawling under it like a frightened child, making it by far his most dramatic moment of the night. Turner, who has left most of his guitar playing to touring guitarist Thomas Rowley, has more mobility around the stage, making him less of a still frontman, unlike his bandmates, who only move to go from guitar to keys, such as the case of Jamie Cook, or to be closer to drummer Matt Helders, like bassist Nick O’Malley does from time to time. But none of them address the audience, and interestingly, Cook tends to play face away from the attendance.
Top: Alex Turner sat behind his piano for the second half of "Four Out of Five". Bassist Nick O'Malley kept the low end beefy and groovy.
Bottom: Drummer Matt Helders kept his steady beat and sharp backing vocals. Guitarist Jamie Cook and his weapon of choice added distinctive dissonance.
If the show trascends is by way of the classics. Indeed out of 21 songs, only 5 are from the new record Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino (2018), where only “Four Out of Five” endures that sing along quality big venues demand; it is their opening song after all. The remaining tunes however reveal the audience drifting away. Overall it was an ok show, a greatest hits repertoire, with everything from “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” with the omission of the classic and very much appropriate "Fake Tales of San Francisco", all the way to “Do Me a Favor” “505” and the darkness of “Crying Lightning”, “Pretty Visitors” and “Library Pictures”, which really underline their heavy side, in contrast to their slower songs like the ballads “Cornerstone” and "No. 1 Party Anthem". The most powerful moment of the show was during the mega hits of their previous album AM (2013) which had the entire venue singing along to “Do I Wanna Know?”, “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and the vigorous closing song of the night, "R U Mine?"
However, the show fell flat in some instances. The main takeaway is inconsistency of blending in the old and pair it with the new, which is understandable given the amount of previous work against the brand new shift in sound. In this day and age it feels as though we are witnessing two different bands fighting to reach equal ground. Their somber, heavier songs from past albums like Favorite Worst Nightmare (2007) and Humbug (2009) versus the new soft/posh tunes with that pseudo seventies feel they’re so keen on. The result is awkward more than anything else. One moment you feel like headbanging to the contagious beat of "Brainstorm" and the next you have Turner boring you away while he sings about a “stunning documentary that no one else unfortunately saw”. Their setlist needs refinement. Unfortunately, the venue wasn't sounding all that sharp either. It echoed all over thus quality of Turner’s voice, which already felt tired, and the remaining instrumentation, was often lost and distorted, this became even more notorious during the slow songs.
Contours. Just as moody and somber as their best repertoire, lightning design enhanced the sound of the Monkeys' darkest songs.
Tranquility Base has caused controversy, a real detonator. Either people love it or hate it, a piece of work hard to digest, but the band did take a huge risk with it, and that is something worth appreciating. They could have done another AM record and settle their “rock gods” status, but they went in the opposite direction and came up with something unique for a band with their trajectory, but the risk wasn’t complete. Not when it came to perform it live. The album is filled with sonic nuances, lots of subtle arrangements, fine details, and as such, it deserves to be performed in small, good sounding, intimate venues, where the compositions can actually be heard and appreciated.
To be as big of a band as they are now, probably comes with interests beyond artistic integrity. It seems like neglecting classic tunes by focusing solely on the new material would have caused poor ticket sales, but maybe with a respectful audience in return, real fans. It was only logical to experience two different bands performing back and forth too. It would be interesting to see if/how the band manages to solve this in the future, a record or two post Tranquility Base, when looking back at old tunes is rarely a consideration.
Such distinguished bearing. Snapshots of the man of the hour, Alex Turner in key moments of performance. What a dandy he's shaping up to be.