The holiday season is a time for traditions and for the pop music fan who listens to commercial radio there’s no bigger tradition than holiday radio concerts.
Wednesday night’s annual Deck the Hall Ball, put on by 107.7 The End (KNDD) at WaMu Theatre, continued that tradition with a show that featured a few buzz bands (Sleigh Bells, Temper Trap), some alt-rock staples (Cake, Jimmy Eat World), rising stars (The Black Keys, Broken Bells) and a holiday surprise in the form of Christmas songs sung by the Presidents of the United States of America. If this mishmashing of musicians sounds unusual it shouldn’t because for the most part it nicely reflects the cross section of commercial radio The End represents.
Broken Bells, the collaboration between The Shins’ James Mercer and Dangermouse, headlined the show but the 50-minute set by the Black Keys which happened before the Mercer and Mouse performance was the night’s main event. Drawing heavily from this year’s Brothers, one of the best rock records of the year, the Black Keys played a powerhouse set that got the biggest response and drew the biggest crowd of the night.
Drummer Patrick Carney displayed amazing precision and force behind the skins. His drum hits sounded like thunderclaps from the Gods providing the perfect backbone for the bluesy, fuzzy and distorted goodness of vocalist and guitarist Dan Auerbach’s songs. For his part Auerbach held his own, showcasing chops that would make Jack White blush especially during a fiery rendition of ”Ten Cent Pistol”
Getting the Black Keys to sub-headline Deck was a bit of a coup for The End. Back in October the Akron, Ohio band sold out the 2,800-capacity Paramount Theatre three months in advance of its date there and reportedly the band turned down a second night at the venue, which would’ve been a guaranteed sell out, in favor of playing Deck instead. The Paramount show was electric and thrilling and even though it was only half as long as the band’s Seattle stop in October, Wednesday’s impressive Deck set was proof the Black Keys are the best touring rock n’ roll band in the country.
Since the Black Keys delivered such a stellar show it was almost a given Broken Bells set would be a bit anticlimactic. I would sort of liken it to when you were a kid at Christmas and you opened the present in the biggest box first. Sure you were grateful for all the other presents under the tree but opening that big box made all those other presents seem less impressive no matter what was inside of those boxes. On the plus side, Broken Bells’ set was more engaging than its previous Seattle show at the Showbox back in May of this year. The music had a bigger sound with more depth, which could be attributed to the size of the room. And while the live Broken Bells experience is mostly just songs that are carbon copies of their recorded counterparts those songs packed a bit more oomph this time around.
Earlier both Cake and Temper Trap were pleasant surprises. Aussies Temper Trap have been fixtures on The End’s airwaves all year and they bookended their set list with “Fader” and “Sweet Disposition,” the two songs The End has shown massive amounts of airplay. The band has drawn plenty of comparisons to U2 and rightfully so because its music sounds a bit like how U2 might have progressed after Achtung Baby if it hadn’t gone in the Zooropa and Pop directions. There is plenty of potential for this five-piece with its distinct rhythms and pulsing guitar parts as long as they work a bit on their stage presence and charisma which was lacking a bit during their time on stage.
The members of Cake on the other hand showed off their veteran chops and compared to Temper Trap they had charisma oozing out of their trumpet valves. Cake has a catalog of classic cult hits which made it pretty easy for vocalist John McCrea, who looked more like a poorly shaven janitor than a rock star, to win over the crowd once he smacked his oversized vibraslap which is the cornerstone for Cake’s simple and infectious sound. The band started its set with “Building a Religion” and played seven other songs including “Frank Sinatra,” “Never There” and “Sick of You” during its brief 30-minute performance before exiting the stage. Aside from ”Sick of You” the group performed one other song from its upcoming album Showroom of Compassion which is set for release Jan. 11. Cake is playing west coast dates in February to support the record and word on the street is one of those dates will include a stop in Seattle.
Shortly after Cake the Presidents of the United States of America took the stage as the evening’s “surprise guests.” The trio came out and briefly performed one acoustic song . The song selection wasn’t “Peaches,” “Lump,” “Kitty” or any of the other songs you’d expect the jokesters of PUSA to pull out of their songbook for the occasion. Instead of going with their own original material they performed the Snow Miser song from the stop-action Christmas classic The Year Without a Santa Claus. Having PUSA show up was a nice nod to The End’s local alt-rock roots as well as one of the few times the show’s holiday theme was acknowledged (another being when Jimmy Eat World covered Wham!’s “Last Christmas.”
Sleigh Bells, the band End listeners were likely least familiar with, opened the six-hour mini-festival. I would like to say I enjoyed Sleigh Bells and was turned on to a buzz band I more or less ignored for most of this year but sadly I cannot because of the sound which was muddled, loud and obnoxious. The prerecorded backing music featured bass that was damn near overpowering, making Sleigh Bells vocalist Alexis Krauss’ words indecipherable and inaudible at times and I could barely tell whether Derek Miller’s guitar was making any noise at all.
This of course was not Sliegh Bells’ fault, rather it was the fault of whoever was running the soundboard at the time. It was hands down the worst sound I have heard at a major concert venue in Seattle. Not only is having such poor sound unprofessional (ever hear of something called a soundcheck?) it is also a disservice to the band and more importantly it’s disrespectful to everyone who paid $60+ for tickets to the show. Fortunately the poor sound quality lasted for only one set and it was the one blemish on what otherwise was a flawless and extremely enjoyable night of musicby