Spring in Milwaukee is looking like OG Pitchfork heaven, as the hippest acts from the turn of the millennium are due to parade through the Pabst Theater collective. Heading off The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, Neutral Milk Hotel, Death Cab For Cutie, and My Morning Jacket, Tuesday night found TV On The Radio making a stop at the flagship venue, perhaps the most relevant and vital act of its graduating class. After suffering the loss of bassist Gerard Smith to lung cancer in 2011, the band came back confidently with last year’s Seeds album, continuing the trend of at least one irresistible single per album with the superb “Happy Idiot.” Even the weaker tracks from the new album sprang to life at this show.
The band opened and closed with oldies from its 2003 debut—“Young Liars” and “Staring At The Sun,” respectively—which sounded remarkably modern. TV On The Radio’s style really hasn’t changed much over the years; it has earned the art-rock tag without being pretentious or overly complex, and the songs are memorable while rarely sounding remotely mainstream. Conspicuously left off the setlist was perhaps the band’s most overt pop ballad, “Will Do,” and indeed, that entire album (2011’s Nine Types Of Light) has been absent from the current tour. The slowest number of the night, “Love Dog,” was the only tune that seemed out of place. For the most part, TVOTR was on a mission to get people up and dancing.
Listening to Seeds, it’s tough to imagine clunkers like “Careful You” and “Could You” and “Ride” generating any kind of excitement, but the live renditions made it seem like the band rushed the album out before learning how to play the songs properly. Then again, even relative classics “Golden Age” and “Wolf Like Me” were so rich and energetic that they put their studio versions to shame. Frontman Tunde Adebimpe and guitarist/vocalist Kyp Malone still exude a chill, geeky vibe, but they’ve evidently grown more comfortable settling into a groove in recent years. Or, who knows—maybe newcomer on drums Japhet Landis has been a catalyst for ironing out the herky-jerky elements of TVOTR’s sound into something smoother and more infectious.
Whatever the case, as the epic “DLZ” swelled to bursting at the end of the main set, there was no trace of TVOTR’s lovable awkwardness. These indie darlings have grown into a bona fide powerhouse. Even if the record industry is dying, they’ve successfully made the transition from quirky studio band to killer live act, and the sold-out Pabst crowd roared its appreciation.