Seeing any band for the third time in the space of six months is a little over-kill, but it provides an interesting test of their live credentials and blows open wide the internal workings of that live show. Tonight was the third time I had stumbled across the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the second half of the year. I was right at the barricades at Glastonbury; a little more disinterested, a few feet back waiting for Radiohead at Reading and tonight I was perhaps a little closer to the rear, reluctant to enjoy the growingly over-familiar intricacies of the 2009 YYY tour, but the tickets were already paid for and it was an excuse to get out of the house.
There are, of course, worse live performers out there than the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to see so many times in close proximity. They put on a great show in Brixton, the same great show they put on in August and in June – give or take a few inflatable eyes, glitter and some 12ft or so ‘Y’s which descend from the rafters, rather wastefully, for one song. These differences are, obviously, more down to the constraints of a festival show, rather than the YYYs spicing it up a bit in the tail-end of their tour. Even – perhaps most surprisingly of all – Karen O’s outfits are recycled; there’s the playschool Apache headdress, the Poncho/Kimono hybrid, and the ‘KO’ studded leather jacket (a little more forgivable given its prominence in the Zero video and the band’s album aesthetic). My slightly irrelevant – and somewhat worrying – considerations of the band’s set design and Karen O’s sartorial choices aside, there’s a more disappointing replication of the set-list and the actual performance.
In an age of camera phones, Youtube and heighted interest in live music there’s always the risk of, or perhaps more stiflingly, the fear of short changing your fans. Fans can, and do, check your performance in Berlin in anticipation of your arrival in London; fans can, and will, check your performance in New York once you’ve left. In one sense, this means a greater standard of performance is delivered as a result of the complications of failure being so huge. The Morrissey no-shows and the Wavves meltdown are but two examples of artists not fully comprehending the need to be on your game when the eyes of the world are watching through that guy’s iPhone in the third-row. This higher standard of ‘professionalism’ in the live arena is one of the apparent bonuses of the wonderful world of shared experiences and interconnectivity. The other side of it is the stifling standardisation of performance that stems from this Youtube-induced self-awareness. Play a special cover one night and the people coming the following night will be disappointed if they don’t get something similar, if not the same. This results in ‘mono-performance’, a situation where a band finds itself trapped by this fear – or perhaps they’re just too awful – and they churn out the same thing night after night. In the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s case there’s Karen O going to the barrier and allowing the tone-deaf to sing along to Cheated Hearts, her holding the mic in her mouth and growling gutturally , the release of inflatable eyes into the crowd, and dedications to the band’s and the audience’s loved ones before the tame acoustic version of Maps. Sound familiar?
This isn’t a criticism of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in particular; I’ve had a great time every time I’ve seen them this year and there are enough other variables to provide a different mood to each show. It is a problem, though, and it’s one that plagues countless other bands. Muse are another example par excellence of this performing rigour mortis. Yes, the size and grandeur of their stadium-busting live tours means there needs to be an element of uniformity, but listen, there’s the same ‘improvs’ at the end of certain songs, so much so that their infamously rabid fanbase has names for many of them; they’ve been around for years; this, Matt Bellamy’s complete void of any charm or personality and the sameness of their playlists makes for a set of performances that can feel very, very similar.
It’s not that this repetition is unenjoyable exactly, but it does take away from that cherished feeling of uniqueness that is the reason for the live show. It’s the insincerity of the act that confuses the most. When I see the lead singer to go to the barrier, crowd-surf, try to swallow the mic or indulge in crowd banter, I want it to be just for me, or, rather, us. It should be exciting, genuine, unplanned. I want it to be because they felt like it. It should be spontaneous, desired from the heart. There’s just something rather sinister and disconcerting in imaging the image of Karen taking that mic into her mouth and growling every night of the YYYs tour dozens and dozens of times, over and over again.