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Yeah Yeah Yeahs Bring Grit and Glitter to Chicago Tour Opener

May 27, 2009 8:46 AM ET

Yeah Yeah Yeahs reworked their scrappy punk sound to brilliant effect on their third album, It's Blitz!, incorporating rich keyboard textures and displaying an increased fragility on a handful of moodier cuts. But despite the musical shift, the trio sounded anything but delicate as they launched a national tour at a near-capacity Aragon Ballroom in Chicago on Tuesday.

(Check out photos from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs Chicago blitz.)

Karen O, decked out in tiger-print tights and a patterned kimono, was a blur of movement, spewing streams of water (on both herself and at the audience), stomping on foot pedals to trigger blasts of confetti and incorporating enough frantic dance moves to make Bruno Tonioli's head spin. The frontwoman appeared to find inspiration in everything from Tai chi to Jazzercise to epileptic seizures (if the weather outside the venue was any indication, it's likely she tossed in some sort of tribal rain dance as well).

Diminutive guitarist Nick Zinner provided a perfect foil to Karen O's Technicolor presence. Dressed head-to-toe in black and sporting a dramatic haircut, the wiry musician looked as though he'd sprung directly from Tim Burton's imagination and played as if he'd committed the entire Cramps discography to memory (fitting then that the group tore through a gloriously sludgy version of Lux Interior and Company's "Human Fly"). Zinner made his instrument roar like a jet-engine on a majestic "Runaway," laid down a loose torrent of riffs on the bad-acid flashback of "Art Star" and colored a shimmering "Skeletons" with scraping walls of guitar noise.

The trio, anchored by ever-steady drummer Brian Chase, benefitted from the presence of touring guitarist-keyboardist David Pajo (Slint, Zwan), who played on more than half the cuts and shaded the songs with everything from acoustic guitar to waves of electronic feedback to sonar pings of synthesizer. Still, Karen O owned the evening, her near-constant Cheshire Cat grin advertising the fact that she relished every second of her 70 minutes onstage.

Whether donning a black leather jacket for the hardened electro-groove of "Zero" — a song whose calls to "get your leather on" sounded like a leftover rallying cry from Chicago's just-concluded International Mr. Leather — howling like a woman on fire on "Man" or dressing like a nimble Luchador for the discotheque-ready "Heads Will Roll," the singer remained a charmingly outsized focal point throughout. Just take her word for it. As she sang on "Cheated Hearts": "Sometimes I think I'm bigger than the sound."

Set List:
"Runaway"
"Black Tongue"
"Human Fly" (Cramps cover)
"Man"
"Dull Life"
"Gold Lion"
"Cheated Hearts"
"Skeletons"
"Soft Shock"
"Honeybear"
"Zero"
"Maps"
"Y Control"

Encore:
"Heads Will Roll"
"Art Star"
"Date With the Night"

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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