Franz Ferdinand and Death Cab: Which half rocked?
Co-headlining tours are always tricky arrangements, but even more so when there's a pronounced contrast of styles. Seeing Death Cab for Cutie and Franz Ferdinand (who alternate the headline slot) provoked a flashback to a 2002 Radio City show featuring the buzziest bands of that time: the White Stripes and the Strokes. And just as opener Jack White's electromagnetic dynamism made the downtown kings' cool disinterest that much duller and unbearable, the excitable Alex Kapranos and his funky Scotsmen made the Seattle emo-rockers' set feel like an interminably boring dream.
Against a backdrop of two huts and winter-white trees, frontman Ben Gibbard bopped and emoted with plenty of non-aggressive energy, but the sameness of his band's too-precious material ensured that his best efforts were all in vain. Recent single ''Soul Meets Body'' delivered only slightly more gritty variation from the prevailing eighth-note monotony (not to mention Gibbard's four-note comfort zone), though it did cause hundreds of cell-phone LCD screens to simultaneously pop open, bringing some light to the dim festivities.
While there were many fans quietly singing along with each word, there were countless others like my row-mate, who asked what I was scribbling in my notepad before offering an unsolicited ''This band is putting me to sleep.'' And she wasn't alone. After a yawn-worthy, Coldplay-esque miniset with Gibbard at the keyboard, Death Cab made a late-breaking attempt to revive the Hammerstein Ballroom crowd with the bubbly ''Sound of Settling,'' but it wasn't enough. And the conclusion was simple: They're a first-class headphone band, but totally missable as a live attraction.
Franz Ferdinand, however, make music born for the stage. They skipped the arty backdrops and instead used their tour budget for a stunningly choreographed light show that heightened the thrill of each groove. Frontman Kapranos' flair for the dramatic was immediately apparent he barely made it through the first song before dropping to his scrawny knees while playing guitar. And though some notes missed their mark and the sound was sometimes muddy, the Glaswegians rose above these blemishes through cocky showmanship and catchy, surprisingly varied tunes.
The moody ballads (''Eleanor'') and impressive Brit-pop (''Walk Away'') from their second, more accomplished album, You Could Have It So Much Better, added a mature balance to the driving, playful post-punk jams of their self-titled debut, making for a complete and nourishing set. Brand new track ''L. Wells'' (watch the video here) showed an even further-reaching ambition to bridge disco-rock to their British Invasion ancestry. But it was those early hits, ''Take Me Out,'' ''Darts of Pleasure,'' and final encore ''This Fire'' that proved they not only can write hot-stomping radio hits, but also can sell them with a deliciously winning combo of camp and complete sincerity. This conclusion was simpler: We pity the emo-shlubs who ever have to take the stage after Franz Ferdinand. Thankfully, on this night, Death Cab for Cutie were off the hook.