The warm months have finally arrived in Madison, and with them is a brimming lineup of bands coming through on summer tours. For folks who visited the Orpheum Theater to see Cage The Elephant with openers Portugal. The Man and Twin Peaks on June 11, the night was proof of how make-it-or-break-it a live performance can be when it comes to appreciating a band.
Have you ever experienced, or observed someone else, wanting to get groovy at a concert but unsure how much nodding and foot-tapping to do? (SOS, is this an OK amount of swaying?) When Cage The Elephant’s frontman Matt Shultz is on stage, all such concerns are out the window. From the crowded pit of teenagers to the balconies filled with older guests, attendees gave themselves up to the music and danced with abandon that night.
Although Cage has become mainstream to rock music over their decade-long career, garnering both critical and commercial success, I’ve never quite been able to get into their music before. That said, Cage presents a totally different experience live. Shultz’s infectious — and for the record, possibly unparalleled — energy clasped the audience in a blissed-out grip of cheerful tunes and positive summer vibes.
The evening started out right with opening band Twin Peaks launching animatedly into “Butterfly” from their 2016 album, Down in Heaven. Most of the audience seemed unfamiliar with the band but enjoyed their music nonetheless. Fans of garage rock bands like Smith Westerns, Parquet Courts and Black Lips would likely enjoy Twin Peaks. Murmurs of approval and a few, “Wait, what’s this band called?” could be heard amidst the crowd as their upbeat, 60’s-infused jams filled the venue.
Later, Portugal. The Man taking the stage to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” pulsing loudly through the speakers had everyone’s blood pumping fast. Expectations of a high-energy and fun set fell short to reality, however, after just a few songs. Portugal’s hype-man, Chris Black, danced around the stage, interacted with the audience and took on the role of spokesman for the disconnected band, who for their part stood aloof, as though the audience were somehow a nuisance. Black garnered as much enthusiasm as he could, but at the end of the day his presence left a lot of the crowd feeling thoroughly confused. Albeit the self-evidence of the following statement, I’ll say it anyway: a hype-man should be unnecessary for a rock show. When Portugal played 2013’s “Evil Friends” towards the end of their set, I couldn’t help but think that the lyrics were oddly relevant to the moment. When their lead singer and guitarist, John Gourley, sang, “It’s not because the light here is brighter/ And it’s not that I’m evil/ I just don’t like to pretend/ That I could ever be your friend,” I believed him.
With almost humorous disparity to the lull of Portugal. The Man’s set, Cage The Elephant pumped much-needed vitality back through their listener’s veins.
“Last time we were here,” Shultz said over the initial chords of their opening song, “Cry Baby,” “we had one of the most memorable nights of our lives!”
Cage shmoozed the crowd further throughout their well-rounded set. To complement the majority of songs taken from their most recent release, 2015’s Tell Me I’m Pretty, Cage played with equal vigor songs from their entire discography. “Shake Me Down,” “Come a Little Closer,” “Mess Around,” and their biggest commercial hit, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,”all made appearances.
Apart from a minor shortcoming of voice and sound clarity that might have been fixed by adjusting the microphone volume, Cage’s songs held up remarkably to their studio versions. Some even sounded better, as the band’s touring guitarist, Nick Bockrath lent them additional flesh. Given the intensity of Schultz’s performance — he leapt, body-waved and crowd-surfed through their entire set — it’s a testament to his physical stamina that his vocals still sounded top-drawer.
As someone who began the evening most excited for Twin Peaks and Portugal. The Man, Cage The Elephant proved the importance of concerts in building and maintaining fans. Their spirit and accessible demeanor act as counterparts to their sanguine songs, making Cage The Elephant a band truly best experienced live.