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Nochella, April 13: Victories for Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Foals

Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs at The Cosmopolitan (COURTESY PHOTO: ERIK KABIK)
Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs at The Cosmopolitan (COURTESY PHOTO: ERIK KABIK)
Foals at House of Blues (PHOTO: MIKE PREVATT)
Foals at House of Blues (PHOTO: MIKE PREVATT)

You can usually read how a show will play out by observing the crowd 10 minutes before the headliner. For Friday's Vampire Weekend gig at The Cosmopolitan's Boulevard Pool, the crowd was calm, polite, unjostled. A family with kids talked about their song wishlist.

For last night's Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert at the same venue, there was a guy passed out in the middle of the main floorspace, who didn’t get up and evacuate until right before the show started (don’t worry, concerned readers, he’s fine). And that, more or less, summed up what was about to happen.

When singer Karen O stepped onstage in her red, sequined matador-like getup, looking more like an artier Lady Gaga than you could possibly prepare yourself for, the screams around the center of the floor were the kind that blur vision and make you plant the balls of your feet to keep from losing balance. And it didn’t let up. Not during “Mosquito,” the title track of the to-be-released new album. Not when a surprising amount of burly tattooed guys sang along to the song “Man” and its chant “I got a man who makes me wanna kill.” And it almost doubled when O dusted off the surprising, simultaneously funky and thrash-punk-ish “Art Star” from 2001’s self-titled EP, during which O spend most of the chorus with the mic clenched between her teeth. 

There was only one letdown that night. From the middle of the floor, Karen O’s voice was muddled, almost indecipherable for most of set, lost under the rhythm section except on the more recognizable hooks, of which there were fortunately plenty. I’d hear later it was the polar opposite for those standing on the balcony and behind the stage, who mostly heard vocals and missed a lot of the melodic cues.

But that wasn’t necessarily the point of this show. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs put on a dance set tonight, a get-drunk-and-lose-your-marbles party mix. Sure, they still did “Runaway,” but the night was mostly saved for the heavier hits (or at least songs that were turned heavy live). We got “Gold Lion,” new single “Sacrilege” and “Cheated Hearts,” all played at level-10 intensity. And right before beginning the three track encore (“Zero,” “Maps,” and the absurdly fun “Date with the Night”), O says, “I’m not fucking with you: Best Vegas show ever.”

It all ended with what might be my favorite way to complete a set ever: Karen O, sweaty, makeup smearing, costume-change leather jacket discarded, howling into her mic, then stuffing that mic down the front of her pants, raising both arms victoriously to the night sky. MAX PLENKE

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Foals could be the best live band you've never seen. I say that because, for one, only a few hundred Las Vegans have ever seen the English quintet, thanks to a terribly attended (and scheduled) Beauty Bar gig in 2008 and last night's decently occupied House of Blues gig. And because it's a goddamned force to be reckoned with when it hits the stage.

Some background: Foals essentially boast two lead guitarists (one, Yannis Philippakis, is also the singer), a keyboardist and a rhythm section that can change a song's course or tempo in a split second with mathematical precision — while never leaving the groove pocket or losing their crowd. Nearly every number is a series of movements — some follow the verse-chorus-verse format, some tweak or subvert it — building to some sort of climax, which may be a resounding chorus or a flurry of beats and riffs. Foals are a rock band that relies on the intuition and interplay of its musicians, but they loosely adapt narrative structures and rhythmic elasticity found in jazz songs and electronic dance anthems. The audience tends to either stand agog over the complexity of the musicianship of the players, or lose its collective mind (and bodily control) at a song's peak and release. 

This played out over and over again during the band's 90-minute set last night, even when the recorded version of the songs possesed a more conventional or less-sprawling structure. "Total Life Forever," the de facto first song after the prelude, is a breezy three-minute number on the album of the same name. But live, it not only sounds more muscular, it's tricked out for an extra minute to allow an instrumental rise toward the final, song-concluding verse — which warmed up Saturday night's crowd ably. The next selection, 2008's "Balloons," also sounded beefed up with thicker, louder guitar riffs, Philippakis thrashing about so much he nearly fell into the crowd. (He'd later consciously hurl himself into the throng, which barely caught him.)

When one wasn't dancing themselves into a frenzy — like during "Providence," which almost remagines Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" as a dance-punk jam — or singing along — see second single "My Number," the sort fo ear crack that might just propel Foals to American stardom — there was Philipakkis and Jimmy Smith's guitar playing to behold. Both mostly trade off lead melodies or complement each other's riff lines; neither seems to assume the rhythm guitar role. Both also tend to favor the high end of the fretboard, especially Smith, whose chimy, emotive notes recall those from mid-'80s U2, played in more of a math-rock style. At times, Philipakkis ventured into more traditional blues riffage, as in the stomping single "Inhaler" and newer song "Late Night," where his vigorous solo was preceded by some of his best singing all night. 

Foals' unrelenting musical kamikazes impressively sustained all night, save for a slightly less urgent version of its most beloved song, the almost-eight-minute "Spanish Sahara." By the end of the final firecracker, "Two Steps Twice" — think Talking Heads remixed for the club set — after Philipakkis took a victory lap around the entire venue with his guitar, our endorphins had been depleted. Which felt great. MIKE PREVATT