Ithaca, N.Y. — Twenty years into Spoon’s career, a release entitled They Want My Soul sounds like it would be filled with the worries of the middle-aged paranoid, signaling that the group has entered its curmudgeonly phase.
This is, after all, a band that penned “The Agony of Laffitte” and “Laffitte Don’t Fail Me Now” as vindictive digs at a former Elektra A&R man they felt screwed them over; who’s to stop them from wallowing in their veteran hot-headedness? Though They Want My Soul does see Spoon drawing blood — at the expense of soul-suckers, holy rollers and film buffs too high-minded for Garden State — last Friday’s performance at the State Theatre had the band embodying a characteristic you’d never attribute to their aggressively taut music: No, not virtuosity — after producing a discography as consistently excellent as theirs, we expected that — but graciousness.
Spoon’s keyboardist Eric Harvey — who was kind enough to talk with The Ithaca Voice prior to the show — opened the night’s proceedings with a set of pastoral road-trip folk that had me wondering why his solo album Lake Disappointment isn’t dominating the NPR circuit right now. Supported by a cast of musicians he dubbed “The Ithaca All-Stars,” Harvey trades the post-punk influences of Spoon for the tenderness of Nick Drake and, as evidenced by an elegiac cover of “These Days,” Jackson Browne. Being that this was something of a homecoming show for Harvey — Lake Disappointment was recorded in Ithaca and an anecdote revealed that Harvey’s mother used to attend movies at the State Theatre in her youth — the endearing “White Elephant” and its lyrics about “going back where I belong” felt appropriate. Ithaca should be glad to take Harvey in any time.
When it came time for the headliners, Spoon took the stage in a utilitarian fashion befitting their music: The band members, dressed in either all-black or all-white and set against a tri-paneled white backdrop lit sparsely in blue and red lamplight, launched into the overture-like “They Want My Soul” devoid of any fanfare. Why, Spoon wonders, let histrionics get in the way of ass-kicking? And kick ass they did: “R.I.P.”’s rudimentary guitar stabs simmering against singer Britt Daniel’s hoarse-throated snarls, the push-pull rhythms of “Don’t You Evah” unveiling a greater debt to Talking Heads than I’d ever noticed on record and the chromatically descending intro of “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” collapsing into a sinister slow-burning strut that erupted into noisily spastic guitar solos.
The band’s economical studio approach comes across in little ways in a live setting, whether it’s Jim Eno’s less-is-more drumming on “Small Stakes” — for my money, one of the best examples of tension-release rock and roll ever written — or the brief full-band rest that cut through the cascading keyboards of They Want My Soul highlight “Inside Out.” The band abstains from showiness, never extending instrumental breakdowns beyond their welcome and playing down Britt’s rock-star poses — microphone stand knock-downs and leaps from the drum-riser — with amiable nonchalance.
As Spoon will let you know, from bassist Rob Pope’s next level chemistry with Jim Eno to Eric Harvey and Alex Fischel’s fervent dedication to the tiny details —whether that means running spacey synthesizers through the course of “Outliers” or giving their all to tambourine and shaker parts — this is a full band effort. That’s not to say that Britt Daniel’s heralded reputation as one of indie’s premiere frontmen is unearned. He lends a swaggering charisma to the otherwise post-punk-by-numbers of “Got Nuffin’” — one of the night’s only two tracks from 2010’s Transference, which, given its status as the also-ran Spoon album, was sort of expected — and seems to relish the spotlight when launching into the endless chord progression of “Summon You,” one of the band’s rare unfettered concessions to romance. But this is a band that truly enjoys playing with each other, cracking smiles at each other whenever they realize that the groove is on lock or when an instrumental freakout is particularly on point.
That Spoon are in the midst of their magisterial era is undeniable. We’re talking a band that can close a concert with as fatal a combination as the misleadingly lilting paean to the dog days of summer that is “Do You” (a sentiment that resonated heavily with an excessively sweaty State Theatre audience), “The Way We Get By”’s piano-driven gutter punk, the Billy Joel-esque “The Underdog” (don’t tell me it doesn’t sound like a morbid “Only The Good Die Young”) and the epic last-call desperation of “Black Like Me.” Forget indie rock, there isn’t an American band period with a catalog deep enough to pull off a two-hour set this money.
As they prepared to get off stage, Spoon acted the epitome of class, thanking the State Theatre for the raucous reception and admitting that the crowd had made them “reconsider what a theater show could be.” The show stood as proof that — on record or live, at a festival or in a theater — Spoon is America’s most intelligent, surprising and impressive rock band. Something special happens every time these gentlemen play music together and, watching them last Friday night, I get the sense that they don’t take that for granted.