Smile Politely

Blueberries and Blues in St. Louis

Fiery Furnaces and Raconteurs at The Pageant, St. Louis, June 12

Note: Not for the first time, I was one of the only audience members caught obeying the club’s strict “no cameras” policy, and so I can offer only these sketches I made of the bands as they performed — WG

William: The Fiery Furnaces are an astonishingly original one-man and one-woman band who create enough music to fill setlists from a dozen power-trios. Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Matthew Friedberger from Oak Park did time in the local Champaign-Urbana music scene as a member of Corndolly and Liquorette, before moving back to Chicago to start a band with his sister Eleanor.

Now based in New York, the Fiery Furnaces, as they appear on their recordings, are Matthew and Eleanor, but for live appearances they bring in other personnel. At the Pageant, we saw them perform as a quintet with drummer Robert D’Amico, guitarist Jason Loewenstein of Sebadoh, and a glockenspiel player known as Glockabelle. At first I couldn’t tell what she was doing — her hands were a flashing blur — but eventually Matthew, the bandleader who remains hidden behind a stack of synthesizers, pointed out between songs that she plays without mallets, using metal thimbles (!) on her fingertips.

Eleanor Friedberger is an inconspicuous rock goddess. My eye and ear have trouble tying together the thin woman in the brown plaid button-down shirt with the strong, confident, bad-ass voice belting out the words — ”She means nothing to me now!” — over the mechanical music. When she straps on an electric guitar, the picture starts making more sense.

Cristy: With her lanky physique, shaggy 1977 hairstyle and introvert demeanor, Eleanor cuts a striking figure not through wardrobe or flamboyance but purely through intensity of performance like a Patti Smith or Chrissie Hynde. Her voice is rich, without scratchiness, and she’s shyly polite, thanking the audience between each song and announcing the titles.

W: The Fiery Furnaces, in their latest masterpiece Widow City, demonstrate an alien dexterity in the songs’ ability to traipse through unrock-like rhythms, turning on a dime between parts of songs whose musical connection to each other is less than obvious. Live, they pull this off just as well: lilting glockenspiel melodies suddenly give way to percussive spasms that shake the rafters and subside as abruptly as they erupted. In the Pageant, with a distressing number of people apparently there for the headline act talking during the opening band, it takes astute listening to tell the difference between this meticulously well-composed, unique contemporary music and noisy chaos, especially during the louder portions. The set was a mathematical avalanche, a controlled onslaught of undanceable rhythms and well-written prose lyrics.

C: The show would have worked better as a headliner. If you hadn’t heard the Fiery Furnaces’ music before, you’d probably watch their brief opening act with bewilderment or annoyance — or worse, boredom. An opening slot doesn’t do their vast and varied repertoire justice.

W: Yes, this is dense music that takes concentration — it’s a meal, not an appetizer — and the set seemed distressingly short. Then again, the live CD Remember the Fiery Furnaces I bought at the show bears the warning “Please do not attempt to listen to all at once.”

After the set I watched Matthew wrap the cords around his keyboard and carry his own instruments offstage while a team of eight sinister roadies with ties and fedoras set up for the Raconteurs. By the time the concert was over, the Fiery Furnaces seemed to have packed up their merchandise and left the club altogether.

C: With flashing strobe lights, the band the Raconteurs opened with “Consoler of the Lonely,” the first track from their recent sophomore release, Consolers of the Lonely. When the strobe eased off, I noticed that the stage was set to look like the band was playing in a dark, desolate forest.

I saw the White Stripes in 2005. Although it was a decent show, it didn’t bowl me over. They plowed through songs as if it were a nuisance to be there. Plus, I was a mile away from the stage, so Jack and Meg looked like tiny, red and black dots. The Pageant is small enough to where you have a good view no matter where you sit (or stand). As a result…well…okay…I was enthralled with Jack White. He possessed the skin of a China doll, a robust body that belied his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle (aren’t most rockers 95 pounds at most?) and some of the shiniest hair I have ever seen. Oh, and he totally cooked on guitar: from the sweaty arena rock of “The Switch and the Spur” to a re-tooled and more jammy version of “Steady As She Goes.”

W: Although I am suspicious of his power over Cristy, I cannot minimize Jack White’s awesome stage presence. There is something peculiarly androgynous in his persona. The pretty made-up face versus the stocky build, the lady-like voice versus the masculine blues guitar tropes, and his ballerina-like grace as he twirls around the stage in service of a no-nonsense handling of his guitar and amplifier. The overly concerned facial expressions he makes during solos remind me of a fussy grandma cleaning a smelly cat box.

The bassist, Jack Lawrence, is a nerd from hell. With horn-rimmed glasses and long silky black hair, he looks like a skinny girl from math club.

C: He stands, stoic and quiet — a bassist of the truest Bill Wyman variety — and occasionally contributes backing vocals and a swish of the hair.

W: Brendan Benson has a more matter-of-fact presence.

C: No kidding! He wears a baseball ball cap perched atop blond, frizzy locks, looking more like a weathered regular at the Embassy than a rock star. With a higher, scratchier voice, he’s a far cry from the polished man I envisioned from his seemingly clean-cut, power pop background (see The Alternative to Love, a 2005 solo release).

W: There is little banter or acknowledgement of the audience. They know who opened for them, and they remembered which city they are in. They are absorbed in fierce, accessible, tautly-crafted love songs. There is sharing of vocal duties, harmonies, and different parts. They switch instruments on occasion. Jack White plays a ringing electric piano that reminds me of the introduction to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The collaborative chemistry between Jack White and Brendan Benson is compelling, with call-and-response guitar licks and vocals, Bowie/Ronson neck-to-neck guitar duels, and a fantastic, coordinated double-solo unlike anything I have heard.

C: White’s and Benson’s chemistry crackles. That’s the only way I can describe it. You can practically see the rapport flash as they exchange glances and egg each other on in guitar solos. Their voices have become almost identical.

The Raconteurs stuck to their own material. They played most — if not all — of Consolers of the Lonely and a fair amount from Broken Boy Soldiers. Highlights included “Old Enough” and “Rich Kid Blues” from the former and “Hands” and “Level” from the latter. I had the privilege of standing behind two scrawny teenage boys who — with every opening riff — exchanged overjoyed glances, banged their heads in approval and proceeded to scream the lyrics of everything the Raconteurs played. No self-conscious hipsters here!

The band came out for an encore: “Many Shades of Black” and “Carolina Story,” a sprawling, creepy murder ballad.

W: After years of fascination with low-budget local and alternative bands, this feels like my first grown-up rock show. I am entranced, swept up in the professional amplification, seduced by the spectacle, all critical acumen dampened. A small part of me wonders whether $30 is too much for the vinyl, or whether the songs would stand up to repeated listening, but I have been hypnotized and know I will buy that record. Even in the twilight of the encore it’s hard to believe I will be released from this magic spell to walk out into a future unknown, save for the fact that I can say I once shared air with these angels. Or devils. But for now the clockwork of the world has frozen and with me in it.

C: Oh William, you’re so dramatic.

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