1. Horned elephant in room: Yes, I saw Empire of the Sun. I stuck around for three songs of the headlining band's Chelsea set, my second time seeing them perform live. I'm still not a fan, though I do recognize why so many people like them; their live show, indeed, their entire existence is rooted in pure spectacle. You could drop them into the middle of one Cirque du Soleil's second-tier shows and instantly elevate it to first-tier status. If someone does that, I might give them a third chance. Maybe.
2. But their opening act completely owned them. The Avalanches, fresh off a Coachella appearance the night before, delivered a mic-drop of a live set. In many ways, they represented the antithesis of Empire—they emphasized intimacy over spectacle, warmth over chilly grandeur. And their beats were flat-out better. Score one for the rebel alliance!
3. They weren't at all what I expected. On record, the Avalanches is a duo—Robbie Chater and Tony Di Blasi—that builds its songs almost entirely from vinyl samples. The work is so painstaking, and the song clearances are such an involved legal process, that the band has only made two albums in its 20-year history: 2000's Since I Left You and 2016's exquisite Wildflower. Perhaps needless to say, I thought I'd never hear "Frontier Psychiatrist," "Subways" or "Radio" performed live ... and more significantly, I couldn't imagine how they would perform them live, aside from doing a straight-up DJ set. The Avalanches had a better idea: Chater picked up a guitar, Di Blasi got on the keyboards, and they recruited a full band—singer Eliza Wolfgramm, rapper Spank Rock and fan-f*cking-tastic drummer Paris Jeffree—to translate their sample-based songs into muscular live jams.
4. It really worked, even the parts that shouldn't have. The repeated vocal samples that make Avalanches songs so damn catchy—the "she wicked, she wicked, she wicked" hook from "Flight Tonight," for example—shouldn't work as sung parts, but Wolfgramm sang them with real verve. Spank Rock easily stepped in for the rappers of Wildflower—Sonny Cheeba on "Because I'm Me," Danny Brown and MF Doom on "Frankie Sinatra" and Biz Markie on "The Noisy Eater"—with rhymes that took the songs in entirely new directions. And Jeffree held everything together with a beat so mathematically sound, it bordered on the spiritual.
5. And hell yes, the samples played. I couldn't imagine "Frankie Sinatra" without its King Houdini hook or "Frontier Psychiatrist" without its small library of comedy samples and found voices, and I didn't have to. Even with all the personnel on stage, "Psychiatrist" still used a 1959 Wayne and Shuster sample to declare, "That boy needs therapy." It wasn't a concession, though. A band as confident and funky and alive as the Avalanches were on the Chelsea stage needn't apologize for nodding to that other, studio-bound Avalanches. Maybe the two bands can co-exist on the next record; it might speed things up a bit.