The following was written at 1:30 a.m. Saturday night:
My ears are still ringing.
A guy next to me asked during the set what the deal was with Criteria. Apparently he hadn’t read my recent write-up (no surprise there). My answer: They did the right things, they did what they needed to do, they went on the road for 18 months and it just didn’t happen. They never “broke”, so to speak. But you wouldn’t know that looking at the crowd at The Waiting Room Saturday night. I don’t know the official number, but it had to be a technical sell out. It was jam-packed. As packed as I’ve ever seen that place. And there was no question who the crowd was there to see.
I caught the last half of the Beat Seekers’ set. Standard pop-punk in the Green Day vein. Well played, or as one person put it, they did it as well as anyone trying to do that sort of thing. Very tight, but we’ve heard it all before. It seemed funny to hear a band play that Blink 182/Green Day style of music, a style that got left it behind so long ago. But it works for them, right?
Criteria’s Stephen Pedersen strolled on stage wearing a plain white v-neck T-shirt and carrying his trademark steel-head guitar and proceeded to play as good a set, maybe the best set, that they’ve ever played. The Waiting Room’s sound is tailored made for what they do, even moreso than Slowdown (TWR has become defined as a rock club, while Slowdown has become a singer-songwriter venue that hosts the occasional rock show). The room was red hot, figuratively and literally, and loud loud loud. Painfully so, but it was a good pain.
Whenever I see Criteria, I marvel at the band’s rhythm section, which to me is the core reason behind how they can do what they do. Mogis and Sweeney keep it all together, they put it all in the perfect black-velvet box, the leash that holds the mad-dog beehive sound from spinning out of control. Sweeney is an absolute animal, a dynamic wonder-being, the throttle that drives this speedy, shiny black Camero along all those hair-pin turns. The enormous sound is wave upon wave of guitar pressed to a sonic red line. It’s topped off by Pedersen’s mid-range croon that cuts through the roar, bright and clean. Pedersen is the epitome of the indie rock frontman – just flashy enough to keep the crowds attention, until he holds his guitar above his head like a modern-day Rick Springfield.
It was impressive. It was as good as anything I’ve seen on any stage this year. I still think they have whatever it takes to break through. But it’s too late for that now. The band has moved onto other things, and though he didn’t use the word, Criteria has become more of a hobby for these guys, who now have more important things to occupy their lives, things like wives and children and money-making careers that rightfully have taken precedent. Still…
I stand by what I’ve always said. Criteria is the best full-out rock band on Saddle Creek BE may be the most relevant (and popular), The Faint were the funnest. The Good Life had the best songs. But Criteria , well, they rocked the hardest, harder than Cursive. Fact is, it took way more than 18 months for Creek’s former “big three” to break. One has to believe it would have taken Criteria another year or two of constant touring, of releasing records, before it took hold, before they caught the attention of a larger audience, before they got their shot at performing on Conan, and man what a performance that would have been.
They played for about 40 minutes, then came back on stage and did a two-song encore, then after the crowd chanted “One more song,” and they did exactly that. To me it felt like a swan-song performance instead of a welcome back gig. There is a cliché about bands playing their best at CD release shows and at farewell gigs. It’s a cliché that happens to be true. Maybe it’s the adrenaline. Maybe it’s because in both instances, bands figure they have nothing to lose. And maybe that was the reason why Criteria never sounded better Saturday night.
Obviously we haven’t seen the last of them. In fact, this is only the beginning, or so Pedersen said. The band has written new material and plans to record… eventually. Whether what they record comes out on Saddle Creek remains to be seen, though the label has never not embraced its alumni regardless of what they’ve sold in the past, and that includes Son Ambulance, who put out an album last year, and Ladyfinger and Beep Beep who have new albums coming out in early ’09. None of those bands sold nearly as many albums as Criteria’s last album.
So how does a band “break” in an age of downloads and television-radio and audiences with 30-second attention spans who only follow bands for one album? How does a band get to that next level? It seems like Tokyo Police Club are slowly getting there. But it also seems even the Creek bands that have broken through are struggling these days, whether it’s Tilly or The Faint or even Cursive. Oberst isn’t the last one standing, but he’s the only one standing on a big pile of money. These days, right now, it seems like the dream of really making a living being in a band — and not having to live on Ramen — is over. The ones that are making it who haven’t sold their souls are very, very few. Like Todd Fink said, I don’t know how anyone makes money off selling CDs anymore. Unless you’re a legacy band or you’re willing to pump out meaningless pap to lifeless masses, you’re chances of being anything more than four guys in a van seem hopeless.
Man, my ears are still ringing…
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