The Strokes became hard to see at just the moment that they became hard to listen to. Their two early 2010s offerings, Angles and Comedown Machine fell a long way short of capturing what had once made them so special, whilst simultaneously their touring schedule during those years was sparing to say the least. Now, after a seven-year absence (save for the superfluous 2016 EP Future Present Past), early glimpses of their forthcoming sixth studio album have been far more promising.
With The New Abnormal a little over six weeks from release, Belfast is extremely fortunate to host one of three special European gigs designed, presumably, to fine-tune the band’s live show ahead of an extended tour to come. They last played in the city some fourteen years ago, but this isn’t simply a case of absence making the hearts grow fonder, but more an active sense of reclaiming the band from their years of exile.
They arrive on stage looking not like a reunited nostalgia act but a reinvigorated version of the real thing, still the epitome of New York cool. The opening strains of ‘Someday’ send the Waterfront Hall into a sea of flailing limbs and flying cups of beer. The rasping vocals of Julian Casablancas have, if anything, been improved by the passing years; still impassioned, still effortless.
The sound in the Waterfront is of the highest order, and that can be said with some confidence because The Strokes put it to the test. Tracks from the glory years – ‘Heart in a Cage’, ‘Hard to Explain’, ‘Take It or Leave It’ – trip from them as easily as they ever would have. Intriguingly, the new material is largely absent, save for the prickly ‘The Adults Are Talking’ and the recent single ‘Bad Decisions’, a song that doesn’t push The Strokes’ boundaries, but does demonstrate that the wilderness years of the last two records may be behind them. The song has credited Billy Idol and Tony James as songwriters, such is its similarity to Generation X’s ‘Dancing With Myself’, a song as old to The Strokes’ first album as that album is to now, a scary thought.
There are stylish quips between tracks, including an incomprehensible Star Trek reference, a crowd-coaxing reference to George Best and The Undertones and an open-ended shot at the state of US politics (“the biggest joke of all”), but tonight is about the music. No sooner has the last note of ‘Juicebox’ been hit than they leave the stage and the crowd immediately demands their return. Is This It sleeper track ‘Soma’ and ‘What Ever Happened’ are dished out before the final hurrah of ‘Reptilia’, always and still their most urgent track. They leave again and there is an expectation of a second return. ‘Last Nite’, unquestionably their biggest song, has not been played. A return is not forthcoming.
A sense of surprise lingers amongst parts of the crowd but make no mistake, tonight was an outpouring of love, a rare visit from a once truly zeitgeist-transformative rock act that has arrived at an intriguing chapter of their existence, one that challenges their relevance. When you begin by asking, “is this it”, it’s hard to avoid the question being asked of you twenty years later.
In a way, The Strokes’ legacy has been simplified by the relative retreat of indie rock out of the foreground of our pop culture. When every two-bit guitar act either side of the Atlantic was getting a moment in the sun, it had become easier to question whether The Strokes’ famed ‘saviours of rock’n’roll’ status had been such a good thing after all.
Defiantly, The Strokes show tonight that the head-spinning power that fuelled their regeneration of visceral independent rock music still resides in them. They have outlasted most of the identikit copycats that cashed in on their aftershock. Now, with that scene on its knees, does a second, distinct chapter await? Or was that it?