haunted harmony: appreciating tv on the radio

September 21, 2018

There’s a way in which, in 2018, the notion of a “community band” is almost outdated. One could easily argue that every band has a “community,” and to see just how big it is, simply click on their social media stats. Similarly, the Internet has changed the very idea of a community, splintering its shared qualities, sacred artists included.

What makes TV On The Radio a beloved community band for the venn diagram of folks who grew of age in Brooklyn, grew up as the Afropunk community coalesced, and grew old (spiritually, mentally, physically, musically) in the 21st Century shadow of falling towers, white patriarchal rot, and maybe a small dollop of hope, is that the group exists not just on platforms and screens, but in front of an audience, is even emotionally available to them. Because one important thing that being a “community” “band” meant before people clicked on “follow” buttons, is the back and forth between those two entities.

Tunde Adebimpe (TVOTR) at AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2016

TVOTR continues to exist despite the fact that, by pop’s standards (hell, even by old-school rock standards), they’re dinosaurs plowing through a radically evolving environment. Yet four years since their last full album (the excellent and under-appreciated Seeds), seven since losing beloved bassist Gerard Smith to a battle with lung cancer (which many in the community presumed would signal its demise), and who-knows-how-many years after the band stopped being the primary creative concern to most of its members, TV On The Radio still walks the Earth. Sometimes, it is almost as though both they (the band) and we (the community) are willing it to be so, despite the ecology, creating spaces we can share every couple of years.

This week, in a trio of shows across the country, that space celebrates the ten-year anniversary of Dear Science, an album big enough that it grew the venn diagram to include people outside the community, because its arrival in September of 2008 was elevated by its context— world economy in freefall and Amerikka on the verge of electing its first Black President. At the time, Dear Science felt epic and mournful, but the dollop of hope had grown into—I dunno—a scoop, maybe two. It even had a vaguely disco song called “Golden Age” that promised rising vibes and “miracles…comin’ round.” We got this, said the meme. Some of the hope turned out to be right on time, some offered false promise, some we continue to invoke in the new dark days of the same old rot. The album is a classic.

Kyp Malone (TVOTR) at AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2016

What communities— and certainly community bands—know, is that NOT living through all this is not an option. And so it was last night at the edge of Brooklyn and Queens, where around 3,000 people packed into a wonderful warehouse-turned-art-space, temple of gentrification called the Knockdown Center, to re-live Dear Science, and be amongst (mostly) their own. The band’s singer Tunde Adebimpe turned one of the Center’s side-rooms into a photo-gallery stroll down memory lane, with images of the band and the community in shared repose, and a crest featuring a stork and an owl that read “Faulty – All – Death” (in Latin),  just to make sure that music wasn’t the only thing on everybody’s mind.

Midway through the album’s performance, the band—made bigger on the night by a five-piece horn section, back-up singers and special guests who helped make these songs (more community)—was joined by young Julian Smith, Gerard’s son. He sat down at the piano and helped play “Family Tree,” and afterwards gave Tunde a big hug as the tears flowed. Gerard would have turned 44 last night, his progeny and image were in the room, so his spirit must have been too, haunting everyone involved, yet egging them on as well. Because what great communities inherently know is that the change that comes with time is a strength, not a weakness, and should be regarded as such.

“Well, that wasn’t emotional,” said Tunde in a bid to prank the moment, while Julian walked off stage and the audience was still wiping its eyes.

“Now, here’s some emotional whiplash,” said Kyp Malone, cueing up “Red Dress.”  And the community band played on.