It was more of a reminder than a comeback. After one warm-up show at London’s 500-capacity Dingwalls club three days earlier — their first gig in four years since wrapping up the First Impressions of Earth tour in Providence, Rhode Island, in October 2006 — the Strokes strode onto the main stage at the U.K.’s Isle of Wight festival on June 12th to the drum rattle from Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”
Without a word of introduction from singer Julian Casablancas, the band fired into three back-to-back tracks from their 2001 debut Is This It — “New York City Cops,” “The Modern Age” and “Hard to Explain” — each discharged with brittle bite and a hip-shattering elastic bounce as simple dot matrix visuals played rounds of Space Invaders or generated stripes in the background. It would be a set short on showmanship and gimmickry but big on musical statements. With no new songs from the album they’re currently recording deemed ready for public performance or even interview discussion, the Strokes had reconvened solely to reconfirm their status as the coolest, most classically carved garage-pop act on the planet.
Casablancas seemed as concerned about headlining a 55,000-capacity festival as he would have been about the average evening rehearsal. In a studded leather jacket and shades, he held the same stance for over an hour: bent into his mike strand, head cocked in the style of Joey Ramone turned to stone. He adopted a Lou Reed twang on “The Modern Age,” strained for the harsher notes and made long, rambling jokes between tunes. The band declared white-suited guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. was open to offers before “You Only Live Once” (“Play your cards right, ladies, and you might get this sweet flesh prize right here”) and lamented the U.S. vs. England World Cup draw prior to a dark, prog-flecked “Visions of Division” (“Let’s all be miserable together”). To introduce the Britpop-referencing “Red Light,” Casablancas improvised a song about the festival and name checked Blondie (“So many bits I stole from them”). Often he merely mumbled incoherently or made trumpeting motions.
But Casablancas’ band had never sounded tighter. Hitting the encore with the filthy swamp rock of “Juicebox,” bassist Nikolai Fraiture tore effortless echoes of the Batman theme from his bass. “Under Control” built from a stripped back acoustic lullaby between guitarist Nick Valensi and Casablancas to a full band slow-burner, Hammond Jr. relaxing his usual twiggy jerks to tease a lazy hula solo from his ice-white Strat. The Strokes were more assured and dynamic for their years away.
The set closed with a fiery “Take It or Leave It” as Casablancas flung his mike stand across the stage and even the modest Fraiture ventured to place his foot on a monitor. Ushering in “Heart in a Cage” a few numbers earlier, the frontman pulled off his shades and wiped his forehead for a rare moment of reflection: “Sometimes it hits me that I remember playing these songs in empty bars.”