Photography by Phillip Roffman.
Julian Casablancas + The Voidz remain just as abrasive onstage as they do on record. Late Tuesday night, following agreeable sets by Cerebral Ballzy and Shabazz Palaces, the Strokes frontman’s scruffy, ragtag team of no-names* shuffled onstage at Chicago’s The Vic to roll out Tyranny track “Xerox”. It’s slotted ninth on the album, and for a good reason, as the hypnotic melody acts as a moment of respite between the lo-fi guitar wizardry of “Business Dog” and the conga rhythms of “Dare I Care”. As an opener, though, it’s a curious decision, but then again, this whole band, the entire album, and essentially everything about Casablancas this year is curious — even down to his demeanor. These days, the guy looks less like a boyish Lou Reed and more like a strung-out Todd Ianuzzi, whose denim vest and tattered, baggy jeans scream of better days in 1986. The thing is, he’s smiling.
That’s what makes these Voidz shows so intriguing. In the past, Casablancas has typically been a morose character onstage, speaking either sarcastically or not at all. Despite his microphone sounding like 808s-era Yeezy, little asides and jokes of his peppered a number of future Tyranny classics last night. He teased the audience at one point by saying they’d take things down a few notches, only to unleash the hyper-kinetic “River of Breaklights” off Phrazes for the Young. He eventually followed up on his promise, especially during an encore performance of “I’ll Try Anything Once”, which found him tickling his inner Pat Boone as he sang in harmony with his many adoring fans, some of whom camped out seven hours prior to catch a front row glimpse at their one-time rock ‘n’ roll hero. Actually, that’s a pretty bullshit, cynical thing to say…
Casablancas is a rock ‘n’ roll hero. His latest album might be affronting to those wishing they could hear more “11th Dimension” and less “Nintendo Blood”, but they said the same thing about Reed when he dished out Metal Machine Music back in 1975. No, Casablancas is making scrappy, eccentric post-punk that either evolves towards an assembly of noises or, if you’re lucky, tumbles into a chest of reluctant harmonies. It’s political, anti-consumerism, and, most of all, angry. For the first time in over a decade, the guy has an edge, and he does not give a shit if you’re with him or against him. But doesn’t he deserve that? Think about it: Casablancas stepped onto the scene with one of the greatest albums of all time — 2001’s Is This It, if you’re lost — and followed that up with another rare diamond. He never had a chance to test the stakes. He never struggled as the confused artist. That’s not to say there weren’t conflicts or hurdles with The Strokes; they were just a little safer than what he’s doing now.
And what exactly is that? Well, based on his supplemental song selections — “Ize of the World” off 2006’s First Impressions of Earth, the aforementioned “River of Brakelights” — Casablancas is finding solace in the chaos. Those two songs are far more focused and refined than anything off Tyranny, but they only corral the chaos. Broken down, each instrumental part is a testy, punchy slice of energy that bounces around with the cadence of an 11-year-old antsy with ADHD and a bottle of Squeezit. That’s pretty much how each song by The Voidz works conceptually; they’re just not as aligned. Yet there’s something beautiful and intriguing about that erroneous marriage, which might be what Casablancas gets off on these days. It’s not clean. They’re not perfect; instead, The Voidz thrive on existing on the fringe, an area that Casablancas can finally experience. If you’re a longtime fan, it’s probably the most exciting time to catch the guy since, well, 2003. Though, if you’re attempting to itch that early ’00s nostalgia, you’re trying your luck.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. There’s guitarist Jeramy “Beardo” Gritter, other guitarist Amir Yaghmai, bassist and synth player Jacob “Jake” Bercovici, the rather superb percussionist Alex Carapetis, and their trusty keyboardist, Jeff Kite. “If you actually listened during ‘Human Sadness’, you’d know they’re all capable musicians, Mike,” one might argue, and I’d agree 100%. That’s why I’d secretly love to hear them reined in some, as they all were on their “covers.” Though, that’d also negate pretty much everything that makes them The Voidz.
M.utually A.ssured D.estruction
Where No Eagles Fly
Ize of the World (The Strokes cover)
River of Brakelights (Julian Casablancas song)
I’ll Try Anything Once (The Strokes cover)
Dare I Care