Diff'rent Strokes?

When I walked into Cat's Cradle Tuesday night, the Strokes' lead singer John Casablancas was the first person I saw. Staring hazily up at the stage while opening act Cave In pushed through their set, he didn't look like the lead singer of a band that's being hyped as "The Next Big Thing" by music critics across the United States and the U.K. He didn't even look like a rock star.

Either people at the Cradle are just really damn cool, or this band's hype has traveled way faster than the band itself--no one swarmed him, no one asked for autographs, no one even seemed to know who he was. He could have been any shaggy-haired, sullen Chapel Hill kid out for some good music and a few beers. But 45 minutes later, as the red lights burned and the ever-polite Cradle crowd forgot their manners as they pushed each other into the edge of the stage, the Strokes became a rock-and-roll band in a disturbingly effortless way.

The set began with the title-track and album-opener from their debut LP Is This It. Drummer Fabrizio Moretti was the liveliest one of the lot, throwing his mop back and forth as he played, while the rest of the band wore deadpan expressions that bordered on boredom. Moving quickly on to track number two, they tore through their entire album nearly verbatim. Just like the album, the songs were gritty and quick--no altered lyrics or added guitar licks. After racing through the first six songs with nay a mumbled word, Casablancas broke it down for the crowd. While the rest of the band gazed intently at their shoes, he warbled into the mic, "Are you having f--king fun? The only reason to do this is for f--king people like you. I may not fking look like it, but I'm having f--king fun."

Well, f--k.

After that confession, the ice was broken and we were all pals. In the second half of the set, the songs became much looser, and the band began to look like maybe they didn't hate us so much after all. The nasty energy that pushes every song on the album from the edge of cool to barely-controlled insanity started to show up in the band's delivery. On "Alone, Together," guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. dropped the deadpan and went into a series of spins and spasms that sent his microphone crashing to the ground. Taking his bandmate's cue, Casablancas started beating himself in the head. Repeatedly. He then did something that can only be described as rock-star slapstick: He spit into his open palm and then smacked the slobber onto his left cheek, while pointing and yelling at someone in the crowd. It was at once beautiful and disturbing.

As they ended the set with the raucous "Take It or Leave It," Casablancas rolled on the floor, staggered across the stage and even tried to dive into the folded denim-clad arms of the crowd below. Attempting a stage dive at Cat's Cradle--now that's rock and roll.

When he made it back onstage just in time to snarl the last words of the song, it was like the hot climax of a great film or novel, or for that matter, anything else with a climax. As the song ended and the band stumbled offstage, no one yelled after them. And it was understood, like a silent agreement between the band and the audience, that there would be no encore.


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