TV on the Radio and Subtle
at The Kool Haus, Toronto, Ontario
Sunday March 4th, 2007
By Allana Mayer
I was the next journalist in line to use the “Subtle are anything but” witticism, but luckily I was saved by MONDO’s title-free format (Dear Editors: Best decision you ever made). Which is good, because I’m feeling a bit out-clevered by the band’s over-the-top theatrics. I’ve seen “Dose One/The Propmaster” (Adam Drucker) play his eccentric frontman persona before, when 13 & God toured their self-titled album, so I knew a bit of what to expect. But that group’s subdued presence is nothing compared to Subtle’s outspoken and fantastical artistry.
This group is prolific enough for an entire set of new material, yet favoured us with the choice tracks from 2006’s For Hero, For Fool, such as “The Mercury Craze,” “Middleclass Kill,” and “Nomanisisland”. Plus, they started with “Swan Meat” from the Wishingbone EP, setting the stage for the “Propmaster” himself to dazzle.
Now, any analysis of Subtle must inevitably devolve into a character study of Adam Drucker. But, for a moment, let us discuss the rest of the band: the keyboardist/flutist/tenor saxist/various-whistle-ist wore a black robe seemingly taken from a Scream costume; the cello player looked like he would’ve preferred a biker gang; Jel head-banged like a psychopath as his hands mimicked the drummer’s heavy rhythm.
Now, the Propmaster. He is this tour’s persona, made up of equal parts Jacko and Beetlejuice. Was the outfit purchased at a fire sale of Prince’s old costumes? I enjoyed the black and white stripe motif that adorns their albums, website, props, and Dose One’s very own clothing; despite its heavy symbolism (which I refuse to delve into here), it was nice to see something stark amidst the usual flamboyancy. Maybe, without losing any of the showmanship or flash, the theatre troupe that is Subtle decided to keep things a bit more mature, a bit more Diva on a Dime. Although that didn’t stop Dose One from deadpanning his way through tasteless jokes about Anna Nicole Smith, cannibals, Jesus, and getting his early acceptance into rapper heaven, or from taking each song’s applause with a flourish of a bow and a wide grin, as if he knew all along just how deserving he was.
Most of his stage presence during songs involved rapping frenetically into the mic while pulling a “look at what a bizarre object I hold in my hand” routine. Of course, there’s only so much you can pantomime while jumping back and forth across the stage, and with his lyrics buzzing by so fast, it was almost impossible to catch all the references and connections. I can’t help but wonder what kind of constitution one requires to fake fascination in the same set of nesting dolls night after night. Other props for the Propmaster included a bust that could be dismantled, paper hearts and fake-blood streamers, a gigantic ring of keys and a long canvas painted with the mug shots and identification of numerous faceless, nameless people.
Luckily, being sick with mononucleosis, I was both too tired and too conscientious to leap onstage and give him a solid lick up the side of the head in pure, rabid fan lust. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t seriously consider it.
Hearing the name (“Saddle?” “Sidle?” “Saunter?”) passed amongst the pimply-faced all-ages crowd at the Koolhaus to see TV on the Radio made me smirk a bit, I’ll admit. It’s just too bad they don’t grant opening bands the rights to use fake blood onstage.
That’s not to say that TV on the Radio weren’t wonderful. I really can’t fault anything that gets underage suburban white boys to shake their skater-boy asses (although sometimes I’d like to). But in their performance, I couldn’t find any of the dark urgency that so appealed on 2006’s Return to Cookie Mountain; it felt decidedly stadium-anthemic. It warmed my heart to see two moms drinking and dancing with their sons on the sidelines, but it didn’t particularly make me want to get out on the dance floor myself. Again, blame the mono for making me so goshdarn uninteresting.
My listening experiences of TV on the Radio have never really hinged on their lyrical content, but with the emphasis placed on words through lead singer Tunde Adebimpe’s body language – emphatic hand flings and hip swings – it felt a bit like a gospel being preached. There’s no point in saying they were surrounded by those already converted. At least half the crowd qualified as “head bobbing” or higher, which for a Kool Haus-sized audience is fairly impressive.
A song near the end, in which they each bore various hand percussion instruments, would’ve been where a smaller band could have handed out toy tambourines and shakers to the audience – and collected a fair percentage of them at the end, too. I guess it’s one of the things you sacrifice when you graduate to a venue that requires a fence and a row of bodyguards between stage and fans. Although TV on the Radio is probably pulling in a budget that would allow for expending dollars on toy props for every show.
Obviously, their music is so high-calibre as not to require stage theatrics – just energy and honesty. And when the members of Subtle hopped onstage for a joint encore, they kept to drumming and left the main band to do its thing. And maybe it was just my sickness-addled brain, but it seemed as though they felt a bit smug about it, as though by the end of the show they had nothing left to prove about the calibre of their own “supporting” act. A friend confirmed after the show that Subtle seemed to have stolen it.