Slight-framed and boyish, the front man
seemed determined to play for the 250 or so students able to squeeze
into the on-campus (and dry) Donovan’s Pub. Perhaps it’s the
similarities between Colgate and Wesleyan University, the private
Connecticut college where the duo started clashing beats together in
MGMT is one of those bands that seem to be forever scratching at the big time. Last November, Rolling Stone named them one of the “Top 10 Artists to Watch in 2008.” In January their debut album Oracular Spectacular was released by Columbia to shimmering reviews and eventually topped Billboard’s Heatseekers chart. Then they brought their woozy electro pop to Late Show with David Letterman.
The duo even landed a Hollywood soundtrack appearance when the single
“Time to Pretend” found a spot on the hit MIT card-counting movie 21.
So why would these guys play in the
student union of a tiny liberal arts college like Colgate? For
keyboardist and background vocalist Ben Goldwasser, it’s the
intimacy. “We wanted to do some college shows. It’s good to be playing
some smaller venues,” he said. The tour has since run the gamut from
their April 25 appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts
Festival to stops at Vassar College and their alma mater, Wesleyan.
Lounging before the show in front of a
spread that included Doritos and a giant fruit tray, Goldwasser and
VanWyngarden seemed content with just getting paid. “Our goal is to dip
our feet in the mainstream,” VanWyngarden said. “But we still want to
break into Alice in Chains covers. It’s not something the Scissor
“We’re doing this for a living now, which is pretty cool,” Goldwasser added. “It’s good to be recognized before the show.”
And the show did go on, even though
VanWyngarden’s attempt at self-medicating didn’t go as planned. “My
voice is almost gone, so everything’s going to sound like James Brown,”
he told the audience, tapping his chest. On the contrary, he sounded
more like Joe Cocker.
From the first few screeches of the
opener, “Weekend Wars,” it was clear that the set was going to be a
struggle. But the students didn’t mind. The band’s music took on the
feel of watching your best friend’s cool older brother play the
neighborhood bar for the first time. The words may have been tough to
get out, but a choir of other voices was there to fill in the blanks.
Scrunched a foot or two from the stage, a pack of young women
(including a couple wearing glittery gold leggings) stretched their
arms in celebration of their heroes turning into vulnerable human
What really saved the set was the rest of the band’s willingness to compensate. Although VanWyngarden and Goldwasser recorded Oracular Spectacular
on their own, a fleshed-out lineup follows them on tour. It also helps
that a good chunk of their songs lean on multi-voice falsetto choruses.
“The Youth,” a hypnotic sway machine
that relies heavily on Goldwasser synth punches, seemed to blot out any
concern caused by VanWyngarden’s croaky vocals. His voice at its peak
sounds pretty strained, anyway.
Halfway in, the band seemed to struggle
without the Hype Machine favorites to keep the sing-along on track. But
the rainbow-colored coke-rock of “Future Reflections” and “4th
Dimensional Transition,” gave each member a chance to drift into
lava-lamp, 1970s-style jams. VanWyngarden even strutted casually back
toward the drum set for a little Lou Reed rhythm-as-lead-guitar
strumathon. It took the poignant “Pieces of What” to rope everyone back
to an even center.
“Past the point of love, shattered and untied,” VanWyngarden cooed. “When you pick up the pieces, I make it out all right.”
Cheers hit the ceiling for the makeout
song of the year, the groovy “Electric Feel.” Lead by Goldwasser’s TK
keyboard, the song limped along at a pace much slower than the studio
version. The band was clearly out of steam.
Then came the realization that this
party had to end. “I’m sorry. This is the last song,” VanWyngarden
said. “Otherwise, I won’t be able to sing for two weeks.” A signal to
the sound booth brought on the cotton candy loops of “Kids.”
Predictably, a pair of girls crawled on stage. They danced with their
hands clasped tightly together, fully aware of the attention their
display was receiving. Within seconds, a small army of coeds joined
them. Two of them snatched away the vocal mikes and belted the chorus
When the track finally stopped, the band
was gone. What remained was a scattered crowd wanting more but still
grateful for the strange gift the boys from Brooklyn had given them.