Karen O has never been one to make safe sartorial choices, but the outfit she was wearing when she and her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, took the stage at Lollapalooza was daring even for her. On her head she wore a towering crown made of multicolored cardboard cut-outs of human hands. It was enormous, a towering headdress that flapped and fluttered in the evening breeze. As if that wasn’t enough — she had the cape to match. She was bizarre, entrancing and a joy to watch. In other words, she was Karen O.
That outlandish outfit served as a good indication of what was to come — a set that was brilliant and daring, bursting with light and color. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have undergone a bit of a stylistic shift recently, moving away from the take-no-prisoners post-punk that defined their early work toward the glimmer and glide of electronic music. They pulled off the new songs with panache. “Runaway” started slowly and built steadily, while “Heads Will Roll” rocketed up instantly.
Karen O controls the stage with a rare kind of command. Her movements are masterfully controlled: she takes long strides across the lip of the stage, leaps in place, spits water into the air, and lunges down low on one knee. The end result is somewhere between a rock show and a pilates class. She strutted proudly throughtout “Phenomena,” peacock-like in her multi-colored costume.
But just as engaging — and frequently unrecognized — is guitarist Nick Zinner. If O is all brightness and euphoria, Zinner is all coiled potential energy. His tense, rigid guitar lines are the perfect counter to O’s ecstatic wail. He yanked tortured notes from his instrument, sometimes simply creating buzzing pools of sound for O to howl over top of. He’s the grey stoicism to her proud flamboyance and the combination of their two opposing forces is a strange kind of magic. On Saturday, it snapped together perfectly, drawing an audience response that was several miles beyond “rapturous.”
Even O herself seemed overwhelmed by the adulation. She giggled giddily throughout the set, at one point with such intensity that the band had to re-start “Soft Shock.” And when she could contain herself no longer, she strode to the front of the stage and belted out: “Best! Crowd! Ever!” at the top of her lungs. How’s that for audience appreciation?
If the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s are about color and brightness, Tool seem to dwell in eternal darkness. They’re the 12 Monkeys of rock & roll — grim visitors from the future who’ve come back with films and with songs to show us what we’re in for. Their set was typically turbulent, powered by the unsettling films of Guitarist Adam Jones and driven by the group’s flawless musicianship and Maynard James Keenan’s weird, wraithlike stage presence.
Few live bands hits their marks with the same precision and energy as Tool, and while Jones’ films provide a riveting spectacle, it’s the musicianship that makes the machine go. In fact, their sonic tricks are just as impressive as the visual ones. Jones unleashed a series of pained, pealing notes in the center of “Aenima,” and the spiraling arpeggio that opened “Lateralus” had an almost unearthly swagger.
And while their set didn’t vary too drastically from the show they performed at All Points West (and, some fans assert, the show they’ve been playing for a few years now), there’s still a kind of exhilaration that comes from hearing a band play with such dexterity and skill, committing fully to a singular and specific dystopian vision. “Our only regret tonight,” said Keenan near the end of the evening, “was not being able to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Bad scheduling.” Maybe there’s some truth to that old adage — the one about the dark needing the light to survive.