It’s summer in Australia right now. Massive touring festivals like Big Day Out and Soundwave are consistently drawing 50,000+ crowds - in record heat, no less - but Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker is 9,500 miles away from his native Perth in the midst of a sold-out winter tour of 1200-seater clubs in North America, like the Orange Peel last Friday night in Asheville, NC, promoting Tame Impala’s sophomore effort, and last year’s standout, Lonerism. Like its predecessor, 2010′s guitar-driven Innerspeaker, Lonerism is a textbook definition of a “headphones album”, one that sounds best when the listener is laying on the floor of their bedroom with their headphones on, only stopping to get up and flip the record over, but despite the studio-centric nature of the band, Tame Impala are a completely visceral live band. The live incarnation of Tame Impala - Parker on vocals and guitar, along with keyboardist/guitarist Jay Watson, guitarist/keyboardist Dominic Simper, bassist Nick Allbrook, and drummer Julien Barbagallo - is a different beast than the meticulous studio obsessive that Parker has built a reputation to be. Simply put, the Tame Impala records just sound bigger live. Muscular rum solos, guitar tradeoffs, and jams from the quintet all augment Parker’s original arrangements of the songs on Innerspeaker and Lonerism, elevating them in a way not too different than the difference between Nine Inch Nails’ studio and live incarnations. Like Trent Reznor, Kevin Parker is continually learning how to translate his songs to a more expansive canvas than the recording studio, and as a result, Tame Impala are playing bigger shows than the Perth musician could have ever possibly imagined as a teenager making music in his bedroom.
But before Tame Impala can join NIN at the top ranks of the touring circuit, they have to finish their just-started tour, an extensive, sold-out affair that surely comes as a result of the rapturous reception that met Lonerism‘s release last year. Before Parker and the boys could start their set though was a set from their Perth brethren, The Growl. A rough, garage rock quintet with members that have nearly all collaborated in some form with Tame Impala’s members, The Growl would be a strange choice to open for Kevin Parker and co. were it not for the band’s penchant for disorienting, hazy force and unpredictable stop-start dynamics. Led by the enigmatic and brooding Cam Avery, whose stage presence fell somewhere between fellow gravel-voiced singers Nick Cave and Mark Lanegan, the band tore through a series of songs from their debut, the appropriately fanatically-titled What Would Christ Do?, as well as a cover of “John The Revelator” that rivals any interpretation of the blues standard from the last decade or so. (Side note: It’s doubtful that Avery is the first singer to run his harmonica through a distortion pedal, but it’s a trick that many a band could benefit from.) More aggresive and tonally darker than the headliners, The Growl did exactly what an opening band should do: warm up the audience with a performance that’s endearing without stealing the show from their host, and then hang out by the merch stand signing 7″s and drinking beer.
After a brief gear changeover, the crew killed the house lights, started the intro tape, and Tame Impala slowly emerged onstage, picking up their instruments for a brief intro jam before launching into “Apocalypse Dreams”, and within minutes of the concert’s beginning, Tame Impala were already showing off their performance strengths in their opening number. “Apocalypse Dreams” is nearly six minutes on record, so it’s long enough to be engrossing without becoming indulgent, even with an extended outro, and it set the perfect tone for the rest of the show - comprising the first eight of what would be close to eighty minutes of entrancing guitar and synth lines, swirling vocals, pounding drums, and pulsing bass all coming together to form a living, breathing version of Parker’s bedroom creations. Even during their most textually-based movements, Tame Impala are a pop band through and through, so when executed with the precision and energy of five skilled players, the insular pop gems from Innerspeaker and Lonerism explode, turning an intimate club like the Orange Peel into an immersive, expansive soundscape that’s impossible not to get lost in. (This would be a good time to mention how terrific the mix was on Friday night - kudos to whoever was running the soundboard.)
The set’s earlier numbers - “Solitude Is Bliss”, “Endors Toi”, “Music To Walk Home By” - maintained the momentum gained by the opening salvo of “Apocalypse Dreams” and “It Is Not Meant To Be” by following a similar template of augmenting the otherwise essentially identical studio versions of the songs with brief instrumental jams and breakdowns, which is no doubt easier that they’ve got an extra set of hands onstage. (Barbagallo is a recent addition to the band, replacing Jay Watson on drums so he could move to the keys.) After a brief conversation with the enthusiastic, youthful audience (sample dialogue: “You’re too kind, Asheville.” “No, you’re too good Kevin!”), the band began the show’s middle section by launching into “Elephant”, a chugging, hard-charging Lonerism highlight that’s going to sound absolutely great while concertgoers inevitably jump and crowdsurf to its stomping rhythm at festivals this summer. However, it was “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”, which now not only serves as Lonerism’s emotional centerpiece, but that of Tame Impala’s shows as well, that drew the biggest reaction out of the crowd. The closest thing Parker has written to a lighters-in-the-air anthem, “Feels” is possibly Tame Impala’s most vulnerable moment, highlighting the colder side of Parker’s isolation like nothing else in his catalog. (And that’s considering that one of Tame Impala’s earliest singles was called “Solitude Is Bliss.”)
The band never quite recaptured the staggering height that “Feels” reached, but they came pretty close on a few occasions during the set’s last songs. Removed from the opening slot, “Be Above It” has transformed from an introduction to an interlude, leading into to the winding “Mind Mischief”, which showcased the rhythm section’s cool, graceful pacing. Typical set closer “Half Full Glass of Wine” continues to be a highlight of Tame Impala’s show despite being one of the oldest tunes in their catalog, and the encore - a recent addition to the band’s repertoire - of “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control” ended the night on a perfectly melancholic note. Calls for a second encore (specifically “Desire Be Desire Go”, according to the fervent throng of die-hards in front of center stage) were unheeded, but the frontman was admittedly not feeling well, so it’s hard to blame him for not wanting to push another ten minutes out if he wasn’t at 100%. He’d already left a sizable impression on Asheville in his debut appearance, as well as the more practical matter getting to the next show.
Lonerism is, by Parker’s own admission, an album about isolation, so maybe that doesn’t explain why each member of the audience was so excited to experience it with 1,000 other fans, but in another sense, maybe it does. There’s nothing like playing a record over and over again in your headphones, slowly creating a personal bond with an artist’s creation, but there’s also an allure to experiencing it live. It’s more tangible, more quantifiable as a memory, and, frankly, much more fun to hear the songs with a throng of people who have built their own personal rapport with the same artist, so perhaps that’s why audiences are embracing a deceptively sad album with such rapturous ferver: because after experiencing solitude for so long, community reaches an almost mythical stature, and Tame Impala is clearly becoming a band that captures the appeal of both sides: a studio band that values the headphones experiences and a live band that understands how to work a massive crowd. 2013 is lining up to be Tame Impala’s biggest year yet - the one where they move from being just critical darlings to a fully-fledged, venue-headlining tour de force without the help of a hit single or a well-chosen commercial placement. They don’t need either of those things because Parker has something better: a masterpiece and a crack live band that literally brings his vision to life.