The experimental pop greats return to Beantown for the first time since COVID
Bands come. Bands go. And if you know anything about post-pandemic era live music, you know bands that you think have gone belly up may well be back and in your face.
Lord knows, there’s a glut right now. Everyone who had tours planned for 2020 and 2021 is out there now and, yes, that includes Stereolab, which put 1400 people into Boston’s new Roadrunner club on Oct 4th.
The London-based Stereolab had quite a first run, at least from a cult level and a critical respect perspective. For 18 years, French-born Laetitia Sadier sang and wrote the lyrics, both in English and French, with the music (mostly) by English guitarist Tim Gane. The two were once a romantic couple and continued to work together for seven years after coming to stop in 2009 with what Stereolab termed an “indefinite hiatus.”
Five years ago, I talked to Sadier – who played guitar and keyboards in addition to singing – when she was doing solo gigs (with a band) in small clubs. It wasn’t her decision to pull the plug on Stereolab, she said.
“I didn’t exit, nor did I break the band up,” Sadier told me, adding Gane had put her in a challenging position when he “decided after 18 years of quite intense activity, he had reached a point where he had just said he had done what he needed to do and it was time to try something different.”
The dissolution of the band, Sadier suggested, was not a necessarily a bad thing: “On a personal level, I thought the relationships within the band – particularly me as a woman and being the only woman in the band – was very painful.” (There had been three women at one point; she is the only woman now.)
So, the reconstituted Stereolab is back – fences mended evidently or at least enough to work together – and it’s a quintet with drummer Andy Ramsay, keyboardist Joseph Watson, and bassist Xavier Muñoz Guimer – the latter a vet of the Sadier’s between Stereolab incarnation, the Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble – fleshing it out. (Actually, Stereolab did tour America in 2019 and played Boston, my city, but I missed the gig. Then, COVID-19 did what it did and shut ‘em down. So, this was my first Stereolab concert since 1997.)
Gane said nothing and Sadier didn’t address the crowd often, mostly just to announce a song and thank us at the end, though before “Eye of the Volcano” there was something about it being “an ode to freedom” and championing “the end of oppression.” Probably about Russia’s assholic war in Ukraine, but I didn’t catch it all. I am aware, from talking to Sadier over the years, that there’s a definite leftist push in what she’s singing, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you much about that from what I heard in Boston.
Now, if you’ve followed the trajectory of the band over the years, you’ve noticed many zigs and zags, most noticeably that ’97 shift away from Modern Lovers/Velvet Underground trance-drone to space age bachelor pad music. A bit meh, that was. This year, there’s a mix, but a decided lean toward the former.
Of local note: As previously noted, the club is named Roadrunner, after the Modern Lovers song, and with their second tune, “Low Fi,” Stereolab became the first band I’ve seen at the club to bring that sound to the forefront. I almost shouted out “Radio on!” at one point, but then I realized Sadier was singing in French so it probably wouldn’t have been appropriate on several levels.
Frankly, Sadier’s lyrics – no matter what language – have always been sort of a mystery – not quite on a Cocteau Twins level, but still, and the vocal mix at the show didn’t push her lilting voice over the music very often. That was OK; I believe Stereolab’s idea has always been that Sadier’s vocals/lyrics are an adjunct to whatever else is going on and, trust me, plenty usually is, though not always. I can’t say every bit of the show was riveting. The multi-part “Refractions in The Plastic Pulse” went in too many directions, some meandering, some more intense, but ultimately just long and disjointed.
But, often enough, there was a lovely, layered, agreeably chaotic sonic attack, particularly during the mid-set “Mountain.” Here, Sadier’s vocals drifted rather lazily over an intense thrash from Gane and company, creating that killer kind of juxtaposition Stereolab fans treasure. After a slow, quiet-ish dirge, “Delugeoisie,” Stereolab churned up the big roaring engine again for “Harmonium.” More of the same for “French Disko,” the second encore song, which drove the dancers in my section crazy and made me think, “Yes, I still have that need for speed.” This was fast and furious, smart, twisty and turny, with keyboards, guitars, drums and bass all coalescing and colliding. Stereolab is a dance band and a head-trip band, two bands in one. I do love a hypnotic din. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
The close of the regular set, “Super-Electric,” was a full-throttle rocker. And the final song of the 90-minute set was “Simple Headphone Mind,” where the drum machine intro beat recalled Trio’s “Da Da Da” and the subsequent electronica brought in thoughts of Kraftwerk. Both of these are ace reference points in my book, though I wasn’t thinking of either band when I exited. I was thinking “Welcome back, Stereolab. Glad you’re part of the autumn 2022 touring glut.”