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Review: Silversun Pickups and a new-look Against Me! (with Franz Nicolay) hit the Ritz Ybor in Tampa



It was a strange sight: A punk band wore uniforms.

Now granted, you had to look closely, because the members of Against Me! still looked ragtag, as you would expect for an iconoclastic group. But they all matched: Black T-shirt, black jeans, a black sweatband on their arms like some sort of sonic assault team -- which they were Friday night during their concert with Silversun Pickups, above, in Tampa -- cutting through the foggy, humid, sold-out Ritz Ybor with nonstop chainsaw-sounding guitars.

Yes, the uniformity of a group that blasted through songs about nonconformity was something to ponder, but hardly strange. What was odd was the guy standing to their left: The keyboard player.

Looking like some pizza place's organ grinder, the mustachioed musician kept vacillating between an accordion and piano keys. That man was Franz Nicolay, ex-keyboardist for The Hold Steady, who is known as much for his occasional handlebar mustache as he is for his keyboard work.

Nicolay, too was dressed in all black. But unlike the rest of the Gainesville outfit, he wore his signature look: Button-down shirt, fedora and bright red tie. Compare that to the black studded punk vest that lead singer Tom Gabel wore -- and do you see what I'm saying about matching and clashing?

In the Hold Steady, a band that's an Irish Car Bomb mixture of geeky bespectacled nerd rock and rip-your-guts-out guitar rolls, Nicolay's eccentricities seemed to jibe with the one-of-a-kind bar band. He was arguably the Hold Steady's second-most recognizable member.

But he left earlier this year after the two parties grew apart, which prompted another surprise: Against Me! recruiting Nicolay for their summer tour.

Would it work? Did a hard-charging punk outfit really need a pianist? Would anyone even be able to hear him?

Strangely enough, it works. Sure, there were many times Nicolay's fingers couldn't be heard while the band motorcrossed through track after track, such as the roaring High Pressure Low. But on the coming-of-age lament, I Was a Teenage Anarchist, his key work refined some of the raw raggedness, perhaps appropriate for a band growing out of its 20s. His play also stood out on the band's closer and most popular singa-long, Sink, Florida, Sink, which included a wailing chorus of wonderful "whoas."

In the Hold Steady, Nicolay was known for leading those Massive Nights kind of choruses with a fist pump and massive grin. Well, war cries, wails and chants are a staple for Against Me!, providing Gabel's edgy shouting some melodic balance. Looks be damned. He fits in fine.

For a straight hour, Against Me! crashed from one 2-minute song to the next and included cuts from its latest album, White Crosses. In a large state lacking high-profile musical acts, the tight band truly shines as one of Florida's homegrown gems.

Nicolay and the boys opened for Silversun Pickups, whose fans -- seemingly split between high school kids and 30-to 40-ish aged couples -- had been relegated (scared away?) to the sidelines while a testosterone-fueled Against Me! fan base crowded the main floor. But they switched places as the Los Angeles band took the stage and began a driving, mid-tempo march that started with Growing Old is Getting Old.

With apologies to the band, who has heard it countless times, you can't help but think Smashing Pumpkins when you listen to Brian Aubert's Billy Corganesque voice, alternating between a pleasant muffly whine and jarring shrieks. But the Pickups connect with their crowds by playing to them, whether through the constant smiles cast by bassist Nikki Monninger or Aubert's willingness to run to the edge of the stage to drum up some drama.

The band hypnotized the crowd into semi-dancing with its warm and enveloping but driving grooves before stunning them with tight tempo changes that could bring emotions up or down in an instant. On a high platform in the back, drummer Christopher Guanlao's long, jet-black hair bounced around like Tommy Lee's while he wailed away, conducting the tunes. He sets his ride cymbal so high above him that it looked like he was dunking a basketball or delivering an uppercut to a punching bag when he struck it. He even needed a head-down breather at the end.

While the band's hour and a half performance, droned toward the middle, the Pickups ended in a fury, topped by radio hits: Panic Switch and Lazy Eye, which included dramatic pauses, guitar freak-outs and distortion-fed cool downs that sent the FM crowd home happy.

-- Justin George, tbt*

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:20pm]


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