HOUSTON — Two guys wedged up against the stagefront security gate just couldn't wait any longer. In a flurry of fists, they started the mosh pit 15 minutes before the Strokes even took the stage at the Verizon Wireless Theater on Sunday. Some beefy bouncers quickly broke up the melee, escorting one of the pugilists out of the pileup — head-first — and then toward the nearest "Exit" sign.
Poor guy. He was that close to seeing New York's brashest and boldest, but just couldn't keep his emotions under control. Thankfully, the same can be said about the Strokes' performance.
Back from a brief sojourn to Mexico City, the group made its way to the stage in near-darkness, the shadowy outlines of their Ramones-style shags and Hendrix afros acting as a physical precursor to the rock and roll history lesson their 80-minute, 20-song set would display. The bottles of Stoli and champagne lining Fabrizio Moretti's drum riser were the only props.
As the set kicked off with "The Way It Is," a blast of strobe lighting revealed singer Julian Casablancas in a black waist-length jacket. Guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. rocked a red crushed-velvet suit, while bassist Nikolai Fraiture and guitarist Nick Valensi were both clad in casual jeans and T-shirt road wear.
The set started off with characteristic Strokes cool. "I'm just gonna take my time," Casablancas said. "We're having fun here."
From the crashing opening chords of "I Can't Win" (nearly the same notes struck by the Beatles to open "A Hard Day's Night") to the snarling "New York City Cops," the Strokes didn't mess with a winning formula, playing the bulk of both albums, breaking formation only for a cover of the Clash's epic "Clampdown." The bubbling guitar skiffle of "Trying Your Luck" had fans up front gyrating like tuna struggling to break free from a net; on "Last Nite" Casablancas cuddled his mic stand like Frank Sinatra used to.
But the lid came off during "Alone, Together" as Casablancas' early reserve gave way to a full-throttled scream. Hammond fell backward and crawled on his knees, grabbing a new pick off of his amplifier with his teeth, all without missing a note.
Strokes songs are really just mid-tempo, midrange fun that touches on several rock and roll clichés. All the good ones.