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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Indie legends Spoon played Madison's Orpheum Theater on Sept. 18.

Uninspiring Spoon show signals the downfall of the live indie rock show

In 1997 The Dismemberment Plan wrote a song titled “Do the Standing Still” for their sophomore album The Dismemberment Plan is Terrified. Aside from being a showcase for Travis Morrison’s goofier proclivities, it also works as a sad monument for the gradual, sloping decline of indie rock.

By that point the scene was already far removed from the heyday sparkle of Mission of Burma, Dinosaur Jr., etc that brought such fervor and energy throughout the ’80s and ’90s. It speaks of the always caustic, always hyperactive D-Plan playing to an unenthused crowd who refused to engage with the band. Sure, the kids were “having a ball,” but Morrison was perturbed, and rightfully so. The scene had already given way to boredom, cavernous “cooler than thou” posturing and vapidness. Now, seventeen years later, the message feels like prophecy; the indie rock scene has never felt more mined out.

The first time I saw Spoon was shortly after Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga dropped; a record so invasive, so wriggling with subversive pop rock delights that my own mom—a woman who hadn’t bought a record since probably the late ‘80s—insisted on buying a copy after hearing “Don’t Make Me a Target” on “Chuck.” I didn’t go to the show with tremendous expectations. The only Spoon song that really got me excited back then was “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” with its bizarre, Jeff Tweedy-esque guitar squall in between chugging piano lines. I got that, but not much else. A little disenchanted and disappointed, I left about halfway through the set.

A friend of mine still claims, talking to his art school friends, that that particular show was what proved to him that indie rock had nothing new to say. I wouldn’t go that far, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. It was Morrison’s song come to life—a bunch of bored-looking kids in knit hats checking their phones while the band chipped away on stage to silence. I’ve since come to truly love Spoon and consider them maybe the antithesis to Morrison’s point; if anything proves that indie rock still has a place in discussion, it’s Gimme Fiction or Kill the Moonlight or even They Want My Soul.

But what’s all this got to do with the Spoon show that went down recently in Madison? I’m going to be honest; I don’t generally understand the point of writing reviews for shows. A concert, like any display of art, is something visceral, to be engaged with in a literal and present way. Reading about something the day afterwards will in no way communicate the flow of emotions in the room or the sheer kinetic energy present.

But therein lies the problem—Spoon’s set can in fact be reduced to a series of adjectives that confidently describes the whole thing and none of them are terribly exciting. Competent, capable, even entertaining, sure, but also completely devoid of that unspeakable energy. Not that that’s the band’s fault, necessarily—Britt Daniels still likes to play rockstar on stage even though he’s clearly something much more clever than your average frontman—but rather more the crowd’s. It was dead, a mass of lifeless bodies, chattering, disengaged. People cheered after every song (and sometimes during, especially for the opening funk of “Don’t You Evah”), but aside from that it was hard to tell that anyone was, well, “having a ball.”

Part of the problem is certainly that, as many have claimed before, Spoon are primarily a studio band. Britt Daniel and company are, for all their rock star dispositions, provocateurs whose primary mission has always been the subtle disturbance of the rock n’ roll mythos. Sure, they engage in verse-chorus-verse songwriting, but dig a little deeper and the sonic mutations become all the more apparent. It’s there in the aforementioned guitar squall of “Beast and Dragon Adored,” the beatboxed percussion on “Stay Don’t Go,” the warped flamenco solo wrapped in “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case’s”—things that all but vanish in their live incarnations. On stage, Spoon go from being some of the most dynamic and interesting folks in the industry to being just another rock band. One with a phenomenal back catalog, mind you, but still nothing to shake the rafters or rattle the heavens.

None of this is to say the band was in any way bad. My beloved “Beast and Dragon, Adored” gutted as it was, still remains a stunning highlight of Spoon’s career, “Do You” is still one of the finest pop songs of the year and “Inside Out,” “I Summon You” and “Black Like Me” are all still remarkable feats of balladry—but by the middle of the show it all began to blend together. Maybe it’s because the band themselves weren’t quite sure how to say what they’ve been trying to say for 20 years now, maybe the scene really did cave in on itself 17 years back, who knows. Either way, if this wasn’t the second Spoon show I left early from it was pretty damn close.

So, if you’re looking for one man’s opinion, I defer again back to Travis Morrison’s “Do the Standing Still”—“I’m not mad/I’m just disappointed.”

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