Everything changed in an instant. The opening band Deerhunter finished their set, and Wu-Tang Clan's "Gravel Pit" started rocking the PA system after a brief moment of respectful applause from the crowd. From that moment, you know this wouldn't be your standard modern rock concert. This would turn out to be a special evening, showcasing a band in their prime and on the cutting edge of where rock, indie, and popular music collide.
The Arctic Monkeys entered the final week of their 2014 North American winter tour with something to prove. The Domino Records recording artists and Sheffield rockers have been heros in their native England for nearly a decade, but they have never been embraced in the United States as one of the truly elite rock bands. On this Saturday night, it felt like the group was making a point that they're not only one of the elite rock bands in the world right now; they have the potential be considered among the all time greats.
Starting with the opening song - the AM album opener, "Do I Wanna Know?" - the band asserted itself over the Madison Square Garden sell out crowd with a huge sound and infectious layered groove. This was truly the moment when everything changed. Like much of that latest album, the Arctic Monkeys showed a slower and more subdued approach than some of the band's earlier material.
Their 2013 album, AM, showed that the band has matured and they've crafted a unique style that's heavy, melodic, and funky fresh. Frontman, singer, and guitar player, Alex Turner described their new sound as "like a Dr Dre beat, but we've given it an Ike Turner bowl-cut and sent it galloping across the desert on a Stratocaster" in an interview with NME. It might be hard for some to imagine what that would sound like, but if you hear the music it makes perfect sense.
A music comparison that kept running through my mind was Arctic Monkeys to Nirvana. Like Kurt Cobain, Alex Turner isn't a great guitar player but he knows how to get a great sound out of his guitar. His songs are dark, post-punk anthems with pop sensibilities and memorable hooks. Drummer Matt Helders provides a powerful backbone for the band, much like Dave Grohl. The key is that the band is able to transfer incredible energy into their performances. This new sound that Arctic Monkeys have crafted may not be as raucous and wild as Nirvana was at their peak, but they are much more slick and sophisticated with their use of keyboards and subtle textures. The biggest difference between the groups is obviously the vocal styles of Turner and Cobain, which are as different as silk and sandpaper. Through the evening, The Arctic Monkeys showed that they could play intricate pop music with deep melodies as well as spacey rock with a primal groove.
The crowd was very young, comprised heavily of teenage girls. A day later, some fans have taken to the web to complain about Arctic Monkeys new direction as an arena rock band. The setlist was heavy on old "hits" and new songs. The Sheffield Six didn't dig too deeply into their early material, which is something that might have pushed the show to the next level for die-hard Arctic Monkeys lovers - of which, there are many.
Over the course of the concert, the Arctic Monkeys played 20 songs. This included 9 songs from AM, 4 songs from Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007), 3 from Humbug (2009), 2 from Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (2006), 1 from Suck It And See (2011), and 1 Beatles cover: "All My Loving" (1963).
The Arctic Monkeys pulled out The Beatles' "All My Loving" as the first song of a three song encore. The crowd chanted for "one more song" when the main set was over, and they got more than they bargained for even though the concert was over by 11 PM. This was exactly 50 years and 1 day after The Beatles landed in the United States for the first time, and an early Beatles song was the perfect cover song of the evening. This curious version of "All My Loving" sounded more like the Beatles of the late '60s, as if Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was playing the song in a slowed down psychedelic whirlwind, featuring a swirling organ keyboard. This was preceded by Turner recalling The Beatles' legendary performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, saying, "apparently one in three Americans actually watched that performance, so if we're lucky 1 or 3 Americans might watch this YouTube video." It was a dry, sarcastic line that John Lennon might have been proud of.
"Crying Lightning" was another song that recalled the sound of the Beatles, specifically the classic early Ringo drum beat. The Arctic Monkeys have a lot in common with The Beatles. The big difference between the two groups is that the Arctic Monkeys sound is built off of The Strokes, Led Zeppelin, and Dr. Dre, while The Beatles sound was built off of Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. When the band came back for their encore, you could hear teenage girls screaming as if The Fab Four had just walked on stage in 1964.
Toward the end of the set, "I Wanna Be Yours" was a slow bluesy tune that could be easily connected to Albert King's "Personal Manager" or Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover." Written by John Cooper Clarke, the song is part of a long tradition of songs that start "I wanna be your..." that also includes "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" by The Ramones, "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" by Sleater-Kinney, and "I Wanna Be Your Man" by The Rolling Stones (written by The Beatles), among many others.
As the show was winding down, Matt Helders drumming was still at top notch. He showed incredible fluidity on the drum kit, twirling the sticks in between hits on "One For The Road" and showing complete control over the groove. Having seen the band open up for The Black Keys during March of 2012, it's amazing how much they've developed in less than two years. That show as an opener was a fast, loud mess that never seemed to get good footing. This night in 2014, they were calm, cool, and collected.
The sky is the limit for this group. It will be very interesting to see how they continue to develop as artists.
For the latest Arctic Monkeys music, news, and tour dates, check out their Zumic artist page.
All photos by Francesco Marano