NEW YORK — Franz Ferdinand's first New York gig took place in November 2003 at a club called Pianos on Manhattan's Lower East Side, in a room smaller than the stage they walked onto Monday night for their headlining set at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
(The theater is located beneath the Garden and is not as prestigious as the vaunted upstairs venue, but its 5,600 capacity is certainly nothing to sneeze at.)
Franz have played increasingly bigger venues with each of their many visits to town, and the fact that they've come so far in just under two years shows not just how strong their songs are and how lucky they've been, but just as importantly, how well they've stepped up: Stardom is a tough horse to stay on, and Franz Ferdinand are riding it with panache and a knowing wink.
From the opening strains of the band's odd intro music (which sounded kind of like the Sicilian funeral music in "Godfather II"), Franz took the stage like they owned it, strutting, stalking, preening and raising their strumming hands into the air with just a touch of sarcasm. Their stage set has gotten more elaborate, with a circular drum riser (complete with steps), strobe lights and a backdrop made of four rotating vertical panels that alternately displayed their logo, the four members' faces or the cover of their new LP, You Could Have It So Much Better (see "Franz Ferdinand's Second LP Might Make You Feel Inexplicably Happy").
Singer Alex Kapranos and guitarist Nick McCarthy were front and center in matching bright red shirts and tight black pants, drummer Paul Thomson wore a gray suit (the jacket stayed on only for the first song; the tie was gone by mid-set) and black-clad bassist Bob Hardy kept a comparatively low profile on stage left. The band has also acquired a vital status symbol: an auxiliary musician. Andy Knowles, formerly of former Franz tourmates the Fiery Furnaces, played one-handed keyboard parts when McCarthy or Kapranos were too busy, and drummed for the one song on which Thomson played guitar.
Despite all the trappings of success, this is a band that just released its second album, and its songs generally share a similar formula (riff/hook/repeat). The band compensates by blazing through the set list and not saving the hits for last: The anthemic new single, "Do You Want To," came third, and "Take Me Out" was taken out mid-set — the floor shaking in time with the crowd's manic pogoing. The energy level dipped only when Kapranos strapped on an acoustic guitar for the comparatively calm "Walk Away."
While the crowd was predominantly white, it was an otherwise diverse mix of ages and styles that speaks to the band's surprisingly far-reaching appeal: hipsters young and old, high-school kids, mainstream rock fans, the occasional goth or metalhead, parents with young kids, and parents with older kids trying hard to look like they weren't with their parents.
The reason for that far-reaching appeal becomes obvious upon seeing the band on a big stage: Despite their snappy look and post-punk sound, Franz Ferdinand are really quite a conventional rock band. The riff of "Take Me Out" is essentially a cross between Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Underfoot" and Gang of Four's "Not Great Men," and a fusion of punk and traditional rock forms the basis of just about everything they do. They wear sharp clothes but aren't afraid to jump off the drum riser; the band carries itself like a gang; Kapranos is a classic frontman, all puffed-out chest and straddle-legged stance; and he and McCarthy act and sound like a two-headed guitar monster. (As great as their trashy, garage-y guitars sound in a big venue, it's disastrous when one guitar is out of tune — as Kapranos' was for about three songs.)
There was even a Spinal Tap moment when one of the panels of the backdrop got stuck — leaving the giant blowup of Thomson's face smack in the middle of the band's logo — before shuddering and then gradually moving into the correct position as a presumably frantic stagehand fixed it.
The group finished its encore in big-rock fashion, capping off a manic "This Fire" with its guitars feeding back deafeningly and the bandmembers doing the classic arms-around-each-other bow. While Franz Ferdinand are still a long way from moving their show upstairs (although Monday's show was nearly sold out, a second show at the theater was called off), at the rate things are going, it might happen sooner than we think.
Another perk of being a successful band is that you get to choose your opening acts, and both Australia's Cut Copy and Brooklyn's TV on the Radio were bestowed with brief but high-profile slots. Cut Copy — whose set was over before 8 p.m. — displayed a more energetic, rock-leaning sound than the one displayed on their new-wave-inflected LP, 2004's Bright Like Neon Love. And although TVOTR's skulking, haunting sound isn't for everyone — their intentionally off-key harmonies and scraping guitars visibly annoyed some — the best of the six songs in their set attained a powerful, cinematic ambience.
For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.