It’s not easy being a maximalist rock band like Foxygen in 2015. All the gear, interpersonal dynamics, expenses, expectations and temptations that come with busting out with a hot record, as the Los Angeles band did in 2013, can be a slog. This is especially true when kids are making melodies and money by building beats with iPhone apps.
Foxygen, co-founded in 2005 by longtime friends Jonathan Rado and Sam France, maneuvered the minefield at the Roxy on Friday during the first of two sold-out nights. Nine members strong, the band mixed the harder, more chaotic work from its new album, "... And Star Power,” with the best of the catchy, smart songs from its British Invasion-inspired breakout album, “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.”
In doing so, Foxygen presented an argument for its continued relevance, one that a year ago seemed in peril after the band endured a canceled tour, an onstage injury and offstage drama. With those factors and the lukewarm reception for "... And Star Power,” released in October and noticeably absent from most critics’ best-of-2014 lists, it’s something of a wonder that Foxygen was here at all. Lesser drama has felled equally promising bands.
Yet on Friday, Rado and France ripped through a brave, raucous rock ‘n’ roll set featuring dueling guitars, percussion, keyboards, bass and a trio of backing singers whose synchronized moves suggested Ike and Tina Turner’s Ikettes. An often wonderful mess of rock performance unfortunately hobbled by a flat, un-dynamic sound mix, the set was far removed from the Kinks- and Rolling Stones-inspired stuff that brought Foxygen early attention.
Was it messy? At times. Did the midset brain-warped excursion into the most difficult songs of "... And Star Power” challenge fans of the more balanced “21st Century Ambassadors”? Yeah, the music got pretty hard, especially for those hoping to hear the fan-favorite ditty “San Francisco.” (They didn’t play it.) An admirably stubborn presentation, Foxygen didn’t hedge much on Friday.
The shift in tactics shouldn’t be surprising, given what the band has said about its recent work and direction. “It’s a lot of strange stress to have people identify your band as one thing, calling us ‘60s retro whatever,” Rado told Paste magazine in late 2013. “I mean, in a way we are, and we love those time periods, we love all of that, but we’re also interested in doing other things besides that. Which I don’t think some people understand.”
The Roxy show presented a band devoted to said “other things”: mixing glam-rocky melodies and beefy riffs with progressive rock’s clashing styles and structures. Choosing volume and aggression over delicacy, the group ran through its set with garage-rock style fury. Whereas in recordings singer France often comes off as a twee, sweetened seducer, onstage he exuded a cockiness that belied his skinny frame and lack of Sunset Strip-styled leather. He wore a blazer — but no shirt. His high-pitched yelp lacked gruffness.
Yet he was whoosh of energy, a cocksure mix of Freddie Mercury, Lux Interior and Mick Jagger, spinning during the dissonance of “Cold Winter/Freedom,” riding piggyback on a bandmate during a Stooges-brand riff-fest in “Can’t Contextualize My Mind.”
During a memorable take on the title track of “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic,” France bellowed like a rockabilly outcast. He karate-kicked like Elvis in ’74 during the “Suspicious Minds"-suggestive song “On Blue Mountain.” Elsewhere he showcased his wiry litheness à la Iggy circa 1969. Swapping shakes with the group’s backing singers, who were dressed in sequins and moving with loose swagger, France grooved like Tina alongside the Ikettes.
During takes on Foxygen’s catchiest, and best, songs, the set-opening “How Can You Really” and “No Destruction” in the encore, France and Rado provided the most valid argument for the twin Roxy sellouts. In “No Destruction’s” lock-tight structure and Dylanesque sing-along lyrics, France sang about a self-destructive lover, “the doors of perception,” “my grandma who lost her arms in the war” and unprintably described Brooklynite jerks.
Foxygen’s stylistic ancestors David Bowie, Captain Beefheart and Todd Rundgren all got weirder and more experimental as they grew into their artistic selves. In doing so, each challenged the flakiest fans to commit to the creators’ muses despite the angularities. Viewed in this context, it’s hard not to respect Foxygen’s shift, even if "... And Star Power” remains a messy, underproduced document in need of an editor.
Like that record, the band, at its most indulgent on Friday, leaned so far toward distortion as to seem unnecessarily impenetrable. Still, there was beauty buried in there, even if it was damaged and lacked a touch of old-fashioned tenderness.