While some rock bands may be more bombastic and theatrical, few contemporary groups can stage a live spectacle on the scale of Tame Impala.
That’s partially because there are few “huge” rock bands around anymore in the traditional sense (I don’t even know of any outside of Radiohead and Arcade Fire — Black Keys, too, maybe?), but also due to Tame Impala’s enduring and endearing habit of combining riff-heavy guitar histrionics with a truly experimental sonic approach.
Kevin Parker and company have White Stripes-type rawk hits (“Elephant”) for the bros, but they also indulge in ’60s nostalgia (“Feel Like I’m Always Going Backward”), and trippy psych-rock (“Why Won’t You Make Up Your Mind?”). And the band’s latest album, 2015’s peerless Currents, elevated it to a whole separate plane. Eschewing many standard rock tropes (like choruses and meandering guitar solos), Parker and co. embraced disco synths, putting greater emphasis on pulsating bass lines and a musical joie de vivre that is absent from a lot of current groups.
That euphoric embrace is evident in Tame Impala’s live performances, which combine the look and feel of a discotheque with the sounds of a mind-melting rock show. Those live gigs — like its incendiary performance at the Greek Theater in Berkeley last Friday — are also a rebuke to any crusty asshole who says that light shows have no place at a rock concert.
Taking the stage just as dusk settled in, Tame Impala put on an absolutely cosmic show during their Friday, Sept. 2 performance — taking the audience on a visual and aural ride for the ages. Tame Impala opened its set with “Nangs,” a minor interlude on Currents, before delving right into that album’s centerpiece — “Let it Happen” — a 10-minute blissful submersion into a musical word that is both tranquil and urgent. That song is a distillation of what makes everything on their last album so great.
(Before I get too deep into the Tame Impala review, now would be the time to heap praise on opener Unknown Mortal Orchestra. The New-Zealand-via-Chicago band has made strives in its live performances, as lead singer Ruban Nielson pranced, danced, and ascended over every contour of the Greek’s stage, all while indulging the local crowd with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Shakedown Street” and dipping into the group’s first-class catalog of original tunes. That show couldn’t be further from the time I saw them at The Independent in 2011 when they played on an entirely dark stage.)
Anyways, back to Tame Impala. Even though the group is still ostensibly touring behind Currents, the band played material almost equally from that album and 2012’s equally-excellent Lonerism. The huge crowd pleasers (“The Less I Know The Better” and “Elephant”) were played, as were cuts that don’t usually make the festival circuit, like “Yes I’m Changing,” a personal favorite from Currents.
The sold-out Greek crowd ate it all up, and, by the time the group closed down the stage with “Apocalypse Dreams” — a twisted Beatles homage from Lonerism — the clamor for an encore was deafening. The band didn’t disappoint, coming out to “Feel Like I’m Always Going Backward,” while confetti streamed down on the stage, enveloping a rapt audience. Tame Impala finished the night with a transcendent performance of “New Person, Same Old Mistakes,” the coda on Currents and muse for pop superstar Rihanna (who covered the song on her last album, Anti.)
The confetti (a trick they probably picked up from former tour mates The Flaming Lips), the neon light prisms, and the trippy music — all of it could have felt cliché in the wrong hands. But, as Tame Impala winds down their two-year touring run, there are few things that feel inauthentic or forced about this band. They’re at the head of their class as last their performance last Friday at the Greek proved.