Last Tuesday, I finally got to see UK indie outfit Foals when they stopped by Oakland’s Fox Theater with Kentucky natives Cage the Elephant in tow.
We have a lot of Foals fans at SFCritic, and I fought my staff to cover this show. Their brand of emotional, yet cerebral math rock is both intellectually challenging and rewarding, and I was lucky to witness it live. I knew they’d kill it, and they did. What I didn’t expect, however, was to be blown away by the opening band.
Cage the Elephant sauntered on stage with their balls swinging like they’ve headlined every show they’ve ever played. It took them about three seconds to conjure up a foot-stomping, hand-clapping storm, opening the show with the Pixies-esque “Spiderhead” from their newest record, Melophobia. Within minutes, guitarist Brad Shultz had jumped on every single speaker, taunted the boisterous crowd on each side of the stage. Front and center, brother Matthew Shultz shredded his vocal cords and our ears while the rest of the band bent their instruments to their will. The jangly guitars and intentionally slurred vocal delivery of bluesy breakout track “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” sounds gritty and raw on record, but live it’s practically doused in whiskey and rubbed with sandpaper. Recalling the raw sounds of Arctic Monkeys, Mudhoney, and even Nirvana at times, they tore through the rest of their set with an otherworldly confidence, occasionally stopping to thank the energetic crowd for making this show “one of the funnest” and “not just another performance, but an experience.”
I don’t know if they absorbed some of Dave Grohl’s pure ass-kickery when he filled in on drums during drummer Jared Champion’s unfortunate burst appendix in 2011, but man… these guys are loud as hell and they can really rock a crowd.
When the fifteenth (!) and final song was over, the stage lights remained on after the band’s exit to a wildly screaming crowd. It felt as though they might do an encore, then I realized that frontman Matt Shultz had just done a handstand on top of an audience member’s head before making his exit.
“Have you ever seen anyone do that before?” he asks. “Have you ever seen anyone do a handstand on the crowd? Well, now you have…” he boasts before literally *dropping the mic* and walking off the stage.
Cage the Elephant – “Spiderhead”
Foals had their work cut out for them, but luckily they didn’t try to emulate or overpower Cage the Elephant’s set. Instead, they opted for a prettier, more measured approach. During the swirling, slow-burning guitar picking of opener “Prelude”, guitarist Jimmy Smith faded slowly into view in front of a blue spotlight on a black backdrop. Each band member joined in, slowly adding musical elements one by one until the song was complete- a living, breathing being. It was clear we were in for something a little different here.
Foals hit the scene in 2008 with Antidotes, a record employing stuttering, jagged rhythms which sounded cool, but sometimes felt caged off and emotionally guarded. Since then, they’ve opened up with each release; 2010’s Total Life Forever and 2013’s Holy Fire have expanded their sonic palette to be more lush and expressive, similar in sound and style to the path Bloc Party forged a few years earlier. With moments like “Prelude” and the shimmering beauty of 2010 standout “Spanish Sahara” in the set list, you might think these guys have gone soft, but it’s all about context. These little gems sound arrestingly beautiful nestled in between some seriously hard-hitting songs. The pounding buildup of “Providence” finds singer and lead guitarist Yannis Philippakis declaring “I’m an animal just like you / Oh I’ll bleed just a little bit too / oh I’ll bleed just like you” over a percussive freakout reminiscent of Mute Math. Closing track “Inhaler” was an absolute destroyer live. The chorus sounds like Philippakis is firing his voice through laser gun out into space (appropriate, since he’s singing about not having enough space). The groovy, sashaying beat of the ultra-catchy “My Number” had us all dancing our butts off like we were in a Miami nightclub, as opposed to a rock show.
Ultimately, Foals have created a dynamic live presence which takes you on a journey. The labyrinthine network of interlocking guitar threads they weave together over their twitchy rhythms and multilayered harmonies has been fresh for a minute now. We may have taken a little longer to warm up after Cage the Elephant’s set, but once Foals got going, nobody was anxious to leave. Great stuff.
Both acts come highly recommended live, I wouldn’t think to miss either of them next time they rolled through town.
Foals – “My Number”