By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Five years ago, the Arctic Monkeys arrived on the music scene riding a wave of hype. The influential British music publication the NME ranked the Arctic Monkey’s debut album, “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,” ahead of the Beatles, Radiohead and the Clash on its list of top 100 British albums.
Monday night the English quintet came to Liberty Hall in Lawrence in support of its third album, “Humbug.” The transitional album didn’t command the propaganda and isn’t as flashy as their first two efforts, but that didn’t stop a nearly full house from rabidly devouring everything the band played.
Over the course of their 80-minute set, the Monkeys delivered more than half of “Humbug,” including a couple B-sides, and half of their second release, 2007’s “Favourite Worst Nightmare.” The contrasting material revealed two very different sides of the band. “Humbug”’s songs, for the most part, are more downbeat, while the cuts from “Nightmare” border on metal.
Opening number “Dance Little Liar” foreshadowed the juxtaposition with a drum cadence lifted from Metallica’s “One.” As the number died down, a bank of strobe lights behind the band kicked on and the group thrashed their way through “Brainstorm” with a performance that wouldn’t have been out of place at Ozzfest.
The band’s approach seemed to be to combine the angular approach of the Talking Heads and Gang of Four with the speed and intensity of Slayer. Slanted guitar lines, surf riffs and plenty of tremolo framed most of the songs. Even at their heaviest, the Monkey’s songs were infused with enough pop hooks to keep the crowd moving, although it was hard to tell if they were dancing or moshing.
Although the newer material was well received, the biggest cheers came for the three numbers from the band’s debut. The opening chords of “Still Take You Home” prompted a big response, and the crowd went nuts during the one-two of “The View from the Afternoon” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor.”
Surprisingly those numbers arrived in the middle of the set. After lifting the crowd so high, there was nowhere to go but down, so Alex Turner strapped on an acoustic guitar for the country-tinged “Cornerstone.” Later, a deconstructed reading of Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” rendered the already spooky song in a completely new light.
The Monkey’s performed on a minimalist stage, in front of a plain curtain and a bank of lights raised about 10 feet off the ground by a series of poles. When the lights were on, which was frequent, it created an artificial ceiling and made the mid-sized theater feel like a cramped, sweaty basement.
Bass player Nick O’Malley is the band’s secret weapon. Tucked in the back corner at stage right, he supplied the needed melody underpinning the abstract guitar lines. As Jamie Cook and Andy Nicholson strafed the songs from unprecedented angles on their guitars, Malley’s melodic bass lines and Matt Helders’ manic drumming held the performances together.
The set ended with the poppy “Fluorescent Adolescent,” which sounded like a mangled Mod single. The aggressive “Nettles” had the crowd clapping along and featured more false endings than a Beethoven symphony. When the number final ended, the instruments were abandoned buzzing, leaving feedback long after the band had departed.
On the way back to the car, I overheard two fans lamenting that more songs from the first album weren’t performed.
“I guess what we have to remember,” one fan said, trying to console himself, “is that what would be new to us, these guys have been carrying for five years.”
Sleepy Sun: While the Arctic Monkeys focus on delivering tightly crafted, manic singles, opening act Sleepy Sun was content to play spacey, long-form album tracks. The six-piece San Francisco band’s 45-minute set was filled with psychedelic, progressive rock that incorporated more than a hint of Black Sabbath and first-album-era Led Zeppelin. The co-ed lead singers brought a touch of folk to the arrangements, particularly when tambourine, harmonica or acoustic guitars were introduced. Fans of Death Star and the Seven Dwarfs, Black Moth Super Rainbow and the Flaming Lips might want to keep an eye open for their next trip through town.
Setlist: Dance Little Liar > Brainstorm; This House is a Circus; Still Take You Home; Potion Approaching; Joining the Dots; My Propeller; Crying Lightning; The View from the Afternoon; I Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor; Cornerstone; Fire and the Thud; Do Me A Favour; Pretty Visitors; Red Right Hand (Nick Cave cover) > If You Were There, Beware; 505. Encore: Fluorescent Adolescent; Nettles.