In 2016, Indie Rock is an attitude more than anything else, and has all but lost any connection to its original definition, as a sub-stratum of alternative music featuring unsigned or independent label artists. Two of the four bands comprising Monday’s Spring Fling concert package at First Niagara Center are signed to major corporate labels. No one really cares. At one time, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, being truly indie was a point of pride. No more.
This is a relief, in a sense, because the claims of authenticity that demanded indie rock stay in the underground often led to a herd mentality, created one of the more annoying cliques in the history of popular music, and had more to do with the self-images of fans than with the music itself. Contemporary indie and alternative rock is now mainstream music, and pretending otherwise is a waste of time.
Like all mainstream music, some indie is great, some good, and some horribly pedestrian and wholly imitative. Spring Fling offered four of the finer indie rock outfits going and, taken in sum, suggested that there is much more to the present-day form than tight jeans, cheap synth sounds, and extravagant facial hair.
[See Matt Weinberg's gallery of smiles and concert shots from Spring Fling]
Cage the Elephant headlined the event, and in a sense, Monday’s show was a victory lap for the band, as it has proven itself in this market before, with an unforgettably vibrant performance as part of the inaugural Kerfuffle festival at Canalside in 2014.
This was our first time catching Cage in an arena setting, and the band more than lived up to the demands of the environment, offering a dynamic and inspired set, and unleashing frontman Matt Shultz on an audience already a bit battle-weary, having digested sets from openers Bear Hands, Silversun Pickups and Foals. Shultz worked the stage like a madman. Calling him his own generation’s Iggy Pop is a bit premature. But man, this guy is on his way.
The evening kicked off with a set from the strangest band of the evening – and I mean this in the nonpejorative sense. Bear Hands, a quintet from Brooklyn, was easily the most experimental of Spring Fling’s four bands, and its relatively short, tight set fulfilled the part of the indie manifesto that demands a dash of the avant garde amidst the guitars and synths and the singalong choruses.
Singer/guitarist Dillon Rau led the band through the sneering edginess of post-punk pop ditty “2AM,” the synth-laden snottiness of “Giants,” and the plasticized psychedelia of “Bone Digger” with equal authority. Songs from the band’s forthcoming new album (due April 15) echoed “Mellow Gold”-era Beck, and suggested that the band is stretching its own envelope, compositionally speaking.
The first spot on a multi-act bill is a tough one, but the band persevered.
Silversun Pickups has often been compared to Smashing Pumpkins, and certainly that ’90s alt band’s influence could be heard during the Pickups’ set on Monday. But one could just as easily pin the band’s use of loud/soft dynamics and the ebullient thump of Nikki Monninger’s bass to the genre-defining assault of the Pixies, or its occasional wall-of-guitars front line to My Bloody Valentine’s wash of six-string vibrations.
Regardless of the citations, it’s what singer/guitarist and principal writer Brian Aubert does with those influences that makes Silversun Pickups special, and it was clear from their delivery on Monday that tunes like “Cradle (Better Nature),” “Circadian Rhythm (last Dance)” – with Monninger on lead vocals – and the audience-approved anthem “Lazy Eye” are contemporary indie songs with legs of their own.
Foals, out of Oxford, England, stole Monday’s show, at least from the perspective of grandiloquent stage presentation and pure musical muscle. Elements of minimalism, math rock, techno and prog fueled the band’s fiery set, which concentrated on the most recent Foals release, “What Went Down.”
The power of this band is rooted in its ability to be both manic and melodic, frantic and intellectual, muscular and subtle, and danceable and intelligent, more often than not within the space of a single tune like “Mountain At My Gates,” a yearning-infused explosion of unrest that provided the best few minutes of music all night. Foals is built for arenas, so massive and upward-reaching is the band’s sound. This band should be headlining the next time we encounter them.
The evening belonged to Cage the Elephant, though. That’s who the assembled – numbering less than half of what it takes to fill FNC, sadly – paid their money for. The band brought it, big time. Shultz was Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger in one. There’s hope, after all.
Alternative Buffalo's Spring Fling
Monday night in the First Niagara Center