Christmas gifts from 94/7 FM come in bigger packages: the Portland alternative station's "December to Remember" concert series features eight bands over four evenings, instead of one or two nights of tapas-style sets. Thus Franz Ferdinand can showcase songs from album number three ("Tonight: Franz Ferdinand," due Jan. 27) while playing all the hits and then some.
If this nine-city tour of North America was meant to be a warm-up, rest assured the Scottish four-piece is already in midsummer form: agile and aggressive, exuberant yet controlled, as loose as they are tight. First up is "Bite Hard," which teases with a croony vocal introduction before ramping into post-punk barrelhouse, its bouncy piano playing off of two compact, piercing guitar solos from Alex Kapranos.
The slender frontman spends the first half of the set sporting a leather jacket zipped up to his chin, looking as though he stepped out of a mid-'80s Julian Cope video. "I want to see the springy dance floor moving tonight," he commands before "Ulysses," the electro-flavored current single, though its fist-pumping chorus doesn't shake the Crystal's floating surface quite like "Take Me Out" and "Do You Want To?", both of which pick up the room by its collective collar, Kapranos exulting in his pogo power.
Another new one, "Turn It On," won't end comparisons between Franz Ferdinand and Gang Of Four, but that's hardly a bad thing, while "Live Alone," might be the song that most lives up to the new album's promised disco vibe, with a swirl of squiggling keyboards and an MVP performance by bass player Bob Hardy. "What She Came For" also has a Chic-ish underpinning, but ends up with a shout-along rock chorus a la "Matinee," then a furious and speedy guitar coda.
But it's two old album tracks that are the high points of the set: the Krautrock-funky "Outsiders," which showcases drummer Paul Thomson, his perspiration flying everywhere by the time his bandmates (plus a keyboard/drum tech) join him in a percussion circle, and "40 Ft," a low-key, dub-inflected ballad from the band's debut that has become a reverb-laden epic live. When Kapranos implores the crowd to wave its arms from left to right and left again as they chime in with "la-la-la-las," the Crystal really does feel like a field in England on a summer night -- albeit with 50,000 fewer people.
Based on audience response, Cold War Kids are co-headline attractions, but it's something of an oil-and-water double bill. Frontman Nathan Willet's vocal drama -- part Jeff Buckley, part Justin Hawkins, part Jamiroquai -- overwhelms whatever melody is in his songs, though the more minimalist, bass-and-keyboard-driven portion of the stalwart "Hang Me Up to Dry" is memorably jaunty.
And while it's no crime in indie-rock to come off like four dudes who barely made it to the stage from their barista jobs (particularly in Portland, Ore.), in this instance Cold War Kids' thrift-shop hip appearance, casual instrument-switching and haphazard dynamics seem like kid's table fare compared to Franz's style and precision.
Here is Franz Ferdinand's set list:
"The Dark of the Matinee"
"Do You Want To?"
"Take Me Out"
"What She Came For"
"Turn It On"