On Cold War Kids and Aging

Cold War Kids have been one of my favorite bands for quite some time. They’re one of those bands that, for a non-music snob like me who still wants to retain some cred, are visible enough for people to know but haven’t ever broken into unacceptable, arena-rock popularity (see: Arcade Fire). They’re a fascinating band, both for their gorgeously complicated lyrics, rife with obscure literary references, and for their career trajectory and what it says about the nature of fame, and of the music industry, and the creative process. And now, for me, a woman in her late 20s (late!), they’re fascinating for what they say about aging.

Last night I went to see them at 9:30 Club—my third time seeing them in that venue alone. It proved to be a show unlike any of theirs I’d seen before, and, really, unlike any concert I’ve seen, period. It became immediately clear when they took the stage that something was very wrong with lead singer Nate Willett’s voice. He croaked through two songs, opting for a different key, never breaking into the distinctive falsetto that makes their songs so irresistibly repeat-worthy. And even that seemed like a struggle. After the second song, he finally addressed the crowd: “I blew out my voice,” he explained in a cracked whisper. “So we encourage participation more than ever.”

Willett plowed gamely through the set, wincing occasionally as if in pain, taking sips of water wherever he could, the bassist and guitarist extra active as if to bolster him. But the person I couldn’t take my eyes off was their keyboardist, Matt Schwartz. Last time I saw the band, Matt was just the touring keyboardist, eager as a puppy to be onstage, contributing backing vocals and shaking the occasional maraca. Before this tour, the band announced he’d been added as a full-fledged member of the group—and his new status was on full display during this show. With Willett’s voice gone, Schwartz did a surprising amount of the heavy vocal lifting. Standing on the right side of the stage, he watched Willett, front and center, and seemed to be compensating for his voice when it failed, several times singing right along with Nate, overpowering him. He had his own vocal solos on other parts, too, and even got a chance to play to the crowd, who ate it up like chocolate pudding.

It was hard not to think, standing in a crowd of teenagers (none of whom, I’m sure, shared my concerns about the integrity of my left eardrum), that we were watching a changing of the guards, so to speak—a transitioning from the original to the new generation, from the older, ailing musician to the young and vital. I thought as Willett took the stage, even before he opened his mouth, that he looked paunchy, puffy around the face. I saw for the first time that he was aging.

In the past year, the band has replaced two of its original members and added Schwartz as a fifth. Though Matt paid extreme deference to Nate, watching intently for his cues while Nate barely glanced in his direction, I imagined their backstage power struggles, the frustration Nate must feel at not being able to perform the way he wanted to, the way he used to be able to. And while Schwartz’s falsetto is nowhere near as strong, as gorgeously piercing, last night he was more Nate than Nate was.

Music critics love to talk about Cold War Kids in a kind of past tense. Always referencing their first, revered album, always musing on the rocky path they’ve followed to low-level stardom. Nate has a new band now, with the only other original member of CWK who’s still around. I couldn’t help but wonder whether part of him is now preparing to dissolve the original band and focus on something new, to accept that the vision he had of his success has not been fulfilled and he should move forward, accept that the Cold War Kids phase of his life has run its course. I wondered if I was witnessing the beginning of the end.

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