Live: Caveman Heat Up The Bowery Ballroom

caveman_january20.jpg
Leigh Rydberg
Caveman
Bowery Ballroom
Friday, January 20

Better than: That Geico commercial sitcom spin-off.

Caveman couldn't have felt more at home than they did at the cavernous echo chamber of the Bowery Ballroom, an ideal setting for the soft distortion and hazy reverb of what might be best described as trog-rock. The band's airy mix of Roxy Music, Elliott Smith, and Jimmy Cliff emits a pale fire—the slow-burning type that starts with two drum sticks rubbing together— by mid-set, it had thawed the crowd. Smoke billowed up from the stage, an effect that rendered it impossible for the band to gaze at their shoes, much less see anything more than a foot away.

Pigeonholed as shoegaze revivalists, they're more comfortable floating above heavy drums than sinking beneath electric layers of existential angst. Misanthropic lyrics like "I don't like people" belie buckets of cheer, but these are the type of carefree guys who scribble their set list on a bathroom paper towel and roll out as-yet untitled new songs provisionally called "New Jam" and "New Jam 2." All self-seriousness aside, Caveman just wants to have fun.

That lighter, less introspective side is more apparent in a live show than it is on CoCo Beware, Caveman's much-hyped debut. The steely thousand-yard stare might be the coin of the disaffected realm they've carved out for themselves, but with a few cans of liquid courage, lead singer Matthew Iwanusa broke the fourth wall. "We made it to 2012. I don't know if it's the end yet, but we're champs for being here tonight." Iwanusa's weapon of choice is a single tom—not that Arcade Fire hasn't done this, but here it's used less as a tool of rebellion than as something to bang on, a freewheeling move that made the hall seem less like a cave and more like a hangar-sized garage.

Caveman played in front of video projection of a menacing skull and the band's name emblazoned in a way reminiscent of an Argento film, an aesthetic better suited to Megadeth or Mastodon; the backdrop suggested that perhaps the skull belonged to poor Yorick, or to the fossilized remains of Cro-Magnon Man, that ill-fated troglodyte with a penchant for artistic self-expression. The projection then drifted to a voyeuristic view of a suburban home and migrated outside, the band silhouetted against a bramble of ferns, even though the most obvious habitat for this group is the basement. Though the stylistic trees in this narrative never gave way to any real caves—the metaphor extends about as far as the distortion pedal—the cavalier attitude went a long way to resuscitating a sleepy audience from the January doldrums.

Some have criticized Caveman's onstage presence as (for lack of a better word) extinct, but months of touring has loosened them up. A lot of the songs deal with infidelities and breakups—although the relationships being broken weren't ones where they could have had it all. Instead, Caveman expressed a more pallid, '90s-style resignation, like David Schwimmer standing in the rain when Olivia d'Abo almost dumped him in The Wonder Years. Yet for all the what-might-have-beens and scar tissue of "Old Friend," "Decide," and "Thankful," the group's manic chemistry announced that the years of alienated hibernation are far behind them.

That optimism bleeds through on the reggae-tinged "December 28th," a minimalist tune that makes a strong case for the descending arpeggio keyboard riff and makes one wonder what could be so song-worthy on a benign date in the no-man's land between Christmas and New Year's. The encore, "Great Life," which has a nihilistic undertone of defeat on the album, erupted in a frisson of passionate detachment, bolstered by four audience members taking to the stage to beat on the toms.

"It feels like it's summer," Iwanusa said over the image of a Doppler radar predicting the snow that was about to fall. It might have been body heat, but for the moment, he staved off the Ice Age.

Critical bias: Love shoegazing, hate shoes.

Overheard: "I'm not into the Jonathans. I got through the first 400 pages of Fortress of Solitude and stopped. That's how much I didn't like it."

Random notebook dump: The drummer in opening act Heaven should have been there when Keith Moon fell off the stage.

Set list:
Easy Water
New Jam
Thankful
Decide
December 28th
My Room
My Time
Where's the Time
A Country's King of Dreams
Vampire
Old Friend
New Jam 2
Great Life

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