"So Tame Impala walks into a bar...": It sounds like the set-up for a groan-worthy indie rock joke, but it was actually the subject of some rare Kevin Parker-stage banter last night at Stage AE. He claimed that the band walked into a Pittsburgh bar the night before the show and heard "Elephant," the song you've probably heard in a thousand bars and commercials. The scenario raises some important questions about Parker and his band: Would anyone recognize Tame Impala in a bar? Would you recognize Tame Impala in a bar? Does Kevin Parker want to be recognized in a bar? Sure, these questions seem like petty paparazzi fare, but when we're talking about one of the biggest rock bands in the world (and a singer who was featured on one of the year's biggest pop albums in Uptown Special), they might tell us something about a band's identity that's equally simple and challenging to pin down.
Although he held a cup with "Rockstar" printed on it (for the energy drink, not the long-forgotten Mark Wahlberg movie), Parker hardly seemed anything like one. The introverted studio wizard would rather be an easygoing purveyor of good times than a boisterous shredder — which, to be fair, perfectly fits the psychedelic MO. When Parker emerged from behind the mic for one of his few rock star-moments, he walked right up to the stage's edge, before turning his back on the audience for "Apocalypse Dreams"'s muscular riff-work. Most of the night, he stood in place behind the microphone, nodding his head and occasionally prompting some casual clap-alongs. Synchronized with the instrumental climax two-thirds into "Elephant," he half-heartedly threw his hand up into the air.
Charisma isn't vital for great musicians — you don't need to smile or strut around the studio to make a great record — but it's necessary to take a band's live act to the next level. At its current state, Tame Impala is a very good live rock band performing cuts from some great albums, with support from a kaleidoscopic, drug-friendly neon light show. But do these songs sound massive.
Tame Impala often sounds like a band twice its size — two bandmates manning synth gear, a rhythm section and Parker made Stage AE feel like an arena, even though it wasn't quite filled up. The date marked the band's first Pittsburgh stop, so in many ways, it still seemed like part of the Lonerism
tour. They leaned heavily on that breakthrough album for the night's best moments (especially the shape-shifting, earth-shaking "Apocalypse Dreams"), performing more than half of it, along with a few from Innerspeaker
and every advance single from the upcoming Currents
. Watching the new songs live, it becomes even more apparent that Currents won't just be a lateral step — every non-drumming band member strapped on a guitar for most of the old songs, but "Cause I'm a Man" and "Let It Happen" let us into some of Parker's synth-driven studio magic.
So Parker and his band sit at an unlikely crossroads: Do they amp up the theatrics and try to be the next Arcade Fire-level success, or do they keep to themselves like an album called Lonerism
might suggest? Whichever they choose, the odd catharsis of hearing a crowd sing along to "Why Won't They Talk To Me?" hints that Tame Impala can have it both ways.