Review: Sleigh Bells return to the State Theatre in St. Petersburg with sound that's evolved, but still loud
Never shy about showing love to the state that spawned them, Sleigh Bells have visited Tampa Bay three times in the past three years.
The first time around, at a sold-out State Theatre in 2011, they came backed by deafening blog buzz and even more deafening power chords. They were an utter anomaly, an ex-hardcore kid and an ex-girl bander, teaming up for Treats, an aptly named album of noise-pop confections so irresistible they soundtracked a thousand commercials and movie trailers.
They returned to the Ritz Ybor in February 2012 on the eve of their second album, Reign of Terror, mere weeks before they would play Saturday Night Live and grace the cover of Spin magazine (back when that was, you know, still possible). But that show failed to sell out, even with A-list DJ Diplo sharing the bill.
That brings us to Friday at the State Theatre — which, this time around, did not sell out when Sleigh Bells returned in support of new album Bitter Rivals. Like everything these New York noisemakers do, the concert was muscular and explosive in all the right places. Singer Alexis Krauss captivated the crowd with her relentless energy, and a live drummer gave new texture to the pre-recorded beats that typically drive a Sleigh Bells show.
Still, the show was a head-scratchingly short 50 minutes — fine, perhaps, for a rookie band, but Sleigh Bells now have three albums under their belts. Shouldn’t we expect more from this once-uncontainable duo? Or, after four years as a band, and three visits to Tampa Bay, has the sugar rush of Sleigh Bells finally begun to wear off?
Sleigh Bells’ embrace of guilty-pleasure pop on Bitter Rivals does seem to have put a sneery pep in their step — particularly You Don’t Get Me Twice and Sing Like A Wire, both of which on Friday felt electric in the extreme. Same with their opening song, the double-dutch finger-snapper Minnie, which was performed with unexpected, plugged-in ferocity; and the title track, on which camouflage-clad Derek Miller, formerly of South Florida hardcore act Poison the Well, ditched the rusty acoustic guitar and shredded away on a tiger-striped axe.
Miller may be Sleigh Bells’ musical mastermind, but in concert, Krauss is the star of the show. Arriving in a boxing robe but quickly shedding it to reveal fishnets and leather shorty-shorts, Krauss pounced around the stage all night like a cheer captain from an alternate universe, one in which tattooed, Amazonian, pinup types are regularly voted homecoming queen. It took but four songs for her to dive offstage and start slam-dancing in the pit on Crown on the Ground. Unlike Miller, who barely acknowledged the crowd all night, Krauss was front and center on every song, leaning into the crowd so fans could scream lyrics into the microphone right along with her. She even talked about living in Tampa Bay for a year before moving to New Jersey for kindergarten. As usual, by the end of the set, she was surfing through the crowd on closer A/B Machines.
That said, even with Krauss’ pep-squad effervescence, it’s hard to think of Sleigh Bells as a truly spontaneous band. Even after adding a touring guitarist and drummer, Krauss and Miller still lean on backing tracks to drive home those ear-splitting anthems. And they make no apologies for it. Miller has no problem leaving the stage for certain songs, like Kids (which they played on Friday) and Rill Rill (which they didn’t). And without those live guitars nailing you straight in the eardrums, Sleigh Bells tend to lose some of their formidable power. Kids, for example, is a head-banging show-stopper with swaggering, punching-bag beats. Yet on Friday the song seemed to drag more than it did during either of Sleigh Bells’ previous two visits to Tampa Bay. And that’s with a live drummer.
It could be that Sleigh Bells are not the soundsystem-shattering arena band we thought they might become back in 2011. They might simply be a cult act, unpalatable to many but beloved by just enough to build a career. Cult acts can do quite well in this world, touring the same cities year after year after year, tweaking their formula just enough to keep hardcore fans intrigued.
Maybe if they come back to Tampa Bay for a fourth time in 2014, Sleigh Bells can bring a few more musicians, add a couple more songs to the setlist and stay on stage just a little while longer. Otherwise, you have to wonder if the ringing in everyone’s ears might someday die down for good.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*