Lake Street Dive is an American four-piece band who create genre-defying, label-eluding music, self-described as ‘if the Beatles and Motown had a party together’; throw in the Beach Boys ca. Pet Sounds, and all the best bits of pop music up to the present day, too. Yet their swift progression from indy-labels and local dance halls to talk-show appearances and international touring is a testament to the band’s talent for clever, catchy and above all fun music.
This year LSD have twice appeared in Europe, anticipating and subsequently promoting their spring release Side Pony. Named for the famous sideways ponytail, the album is a paean to quirky self-expression set to 70s Rock, Soul, and a touch of Disco. Now at the tail-end of a whistle-stop tour across Europe, Performance Reviewed was invited to their sole London appearance at the O2 Empire in Shepherd’s Bush.
Opening on a thunderous, amped up ‘Godawful Things’ – an ironic gospel hymn to rebound relationships – the theme of the evening was a meteoric, power-rocking celebration interspersed with somewhat calmer moments. The song ‘Spectacular Failure’, a thumping pop song on the album, became an ear-shattering, head-banging wall of sound; the jaunty ‘I Don’t Care About You’ turned into a kind of power ballad to searing indifference; and the surfer-styled ‘Hell Yeah’ went in the opposite direction and became frantic rhythm and blues.
Mid-way through the show, the spotlights dimmed and double-bassist Bridget Kearney came to the fore with a captivating, frenetic solo rooted in West African traditional music. At other concerts it would be jarring and gratuitous; here this virtuoso performance only highlighted the band’s versatility.
On the soulful ‘Saving All My Sinning’ and folk-flavoured ‘Mistakes’, vocalist Rachael Price exercises a range and preciseness that is rarely seen in popular music today. These are also among LSD’s more thoughtful, musing songs – beneath the light-heartedness and flippancy of course.
An honorable mention must also go to an inventive rendition of Lennox’s ‘Broken Glass’ with an a capella style chorus.
Despite the consummate musicianship, however, there was a mismatch between the aural and visual offerings. The Empire building is a charming period theatre, with both an expansive dance floor in below the stage and galleries high above. Performance Reviewed was initially seated in the latter, with prime viewing of what sounded like a hyperactive entertainment.
Yet the theatrics, overwrought yet fundamental to mainstream music, were minimalist at best here. Kearney, and Mike Calabrese (drums), were particularly animated on their instruments – and also mostly out of view. Price is an admirable showrunner, but on this occasion she was working with a rather stiff crowd. (An early attempt to get the crowd to sing along, on the call-response chorus of the funky song ‘Got Me Fooled’, was a non-starter).
As plush and comfortable as our seats were, it just felt wrong to be watching this energetic music being belted out below us, vaguely wriggling and foot-tapping to the beat. Could you imagine someone going to a Chuck Berry concert, and thinking ‘what I really need is a chair’?
Perhaps the fault was of our own making. My friend and I eventually made our way down to the dance floor and, here, got a better sense of what Lake Street Dive is all about. As the band reached the finale with ‘Call of Your Dogs’, a groove reminiscent of the Bee-Gees greatest hits, the Performance Reviewed team let loose and rocked our inner side ponies.
For me, Lake Street Dive hits all the right notes. You might not get the same kick out of their nostalgic genre-bending, but they are undeniably very, very good at what they do. Their live performances only up the ante and the energy, at least musically. If you are persuaded to check them out their future shows, do remember to put on your dancing shoes and limber up; and if there is any seating, skip it.