Karen O, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Friday May 21, 2010


Sometimes it's nice to turn down the guitars.

Karen O and her cohorts in the celebrated rock trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs spent most of the last decade strutting through the center of New York City's hipper-than-thou indie circles, occupying a raw-edged space near the center of the section known as the garage rock revival.

Third LP "It's Blitz!" was released last year, and though it takes a turn toward electronic textures it doesn't dial down the sonic energy. Nor are the band's high-intensity shows the sort of thing you sit down for.

So it's with much anticipation that one ponders the mood to be created at the Colonial Theatre on Monday, when frontwoman Karen O and guitarist Nick Zinner (whose booming riffs do much to define the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' propulsive sound), lead a special acoustic performance to benefit the theatre. They will be joined by a string trio (on viola, violin and cello) plus opener Imaad Wasif on guitar.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs rocketed to fame on the strength of their live shows and a few EPs, with Karen O's fashion plate stage presence (coupled with wild, rock girl persona) going far to define the band's public persona. In a fussy outburst typical of the hyper-analysis and obsessive trend-dissection popular in the indie-rock-leaning sections of the blogosphere, a major review of the band's first (!) full-length album

insists the band is, in fact, still playing the same music as they had "since the beginning," and urges readers to look beyond the already-formed backlash and give the nascent band another shot.

Now three albums in, with associated side projects starting to accumulate at the margins, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have "grown up," Karen O admits in a telephone interview from New York.

"For me, I guess the biggest challenge is always trying to find your way back to where you started -- in terms of what motivated you, what tripped your trigger. You get further and further away from that the more established you get."

The intersection of hype, expectations, and the naturally evolving musical leanings of the band require a focused effort on staying artistically grounded, she says.

"After you get used to people taking you seriously, you have to be careful not to take yourself seriously. You have to actively regress, in a way, to have that first initial spirit that you had when you started. That's the fight that we fight every day."

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs (also including drummer Brian Chase) have recorded a handful of acoustic tracks for the iTunes music store, including a gorgeous take on Sonic Youth's "The Diamond Sea" emphasizing the concise melodic sensibility that forerunning band frequently scuffs up in feedback and aural sprawl.

But Monday's set-length performance is a new adventure. The band has played some acoustic mini-sets for radio stations and in-store performances, but this is the first "official, longer form performance" of the band's material acoustically, Karen O explains.

The Pittsfield gig is followed by a set at New York's MoMA, and comes on the heels of Karen O's freak-folk-influenced acoustic work for the soundtrack to "Where the Wild Things Are," which she recorded with an all-star list of collaborators including the other two thirds of the Yeah Yeahs and Wasif, a former touring member of the group.

But the unplugged approach doesn't necessarily portend a new direction for her main group; she says the soundtrack (recorded, on-and-off, over a three-year period) already influenced the sound of the band's last record.

It was an unexpected move from Karen O, but one she says makes sense.

"[Director] Spike Jonze thought it would be a good fit for me. I guess he thinks I'm pretty much in touch with my inner child," she says. When asked if she is indeed, she laughs and says "Of course!"

"To hop onstage every night you've got to be in touch with that side of you, you know? The play side of you," she says.

The repertoire should include Yeah Yeah Yeahs material and some specially chosen covers, with a few nuggets to delight the diehards, like a song or two from "Where the Wild Things Are," Karen O's low-profile side project Native Korean Rock, and her pre-Yeah Yeah Yeahs acoustic project with Zinner called "Unitard."

The acoustic benefit show came about because of Karen O's familial Berkshire roots. She says her father was recently in town for the 40th anniversary reunion of his graduating class at Pittsfield High School. He had the idea of trying to wrangle the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or some permutation, for a special show to benefit the Colonial. The theater seemed the perfect venue for this fully-fleshed experiment with the band's acoustic persona.

"This'll be meaningful for me because it's definitely part of my history and it's for my father, so there's a special feeling behind it. It'll be emotionally charged and, I think, a beautiful performance," she says.

If you go ...

Who: Karen O & Nick Zinner, with special guests. Opening -- singer-songwriter-guitarist Imaad Wasif

When: Monday, 8 p.m.

Where: The Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield

Tickets: $45, $25

How: (413) 997-4444; directly at the box office


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