Cold War Kids Launch a Potent Attack at 9:30

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007

The Cold War Kids specialize in gripping, jittery narratives about anti-heroes -- a flawed cast of characters that includes condemned prisoners, pistol-packing thugs and the sorts of punks who steal money from church collection plates. (The Southern California garage-rock band didn't name its 2006 debut "Robbers & Cowards" for nothing.) They're frenetic sketches built around primal rhythmic stops, pealing guitars, barroom piano vamps and the high, strained tenor of singer Nathan Willett, which often turns into a full-blown wail.

At the sold-out 9:30 club Wednesday, the Kids opened with "We Used to Vacation," a story-song about an alcoholic father. It was a spare, shifty tune, with multiple changes in chords and tempo; but the focus was on Willett's tremulous voice and ramshackle poetry. "Missed my son's graduation," he sang, sitting at a piano, his back to his band mates. "Punched the Nicholas boy for taking his seat / He gets all that anger from me."

And then, his voice straining: "I promised my wife and children I'd never touch another drink as long as I live / But it sounds so soothing to mix a gin and sink into oblivion." At song's end, he took a swig of bottled water, perhaps to soothe his powerhouse voice -- an incredible instrument, indeed.

Willett sings with extreme urgency, completely inhabiting his lyrics, even though they're not autobiographical. His rangy vocals crackle on "Robbers & Cowards," and even more so onstage.

Likewise for the playing of lead guitarist Jonnie Russell, bassist Matt Maust and drummer Matt Aveiro. Whereas some bands perform their songs with a certain sense of detachment, the Cold War Kids attack theirs with a religious fervor. That's fitting, given that three of the group's members attended Biola University, an evangelical Christian college in Los Angeles. (They're no holy rollers, though -- even if their lyrics are spiked with religious vernacular and questions of spirituality.)

The Cold War Kids are recent graduates to headliner status, after having spent most of their short touring life opening for other artists. But they're no spotlight hogs: Wednesday, the Kids invited their two opening acts, Delta Spirit and Tokyo Police Club, back onto the stage to assist with "Saint John," a lurching blues song about a guy who's been sent to death row for hurling a brick into the face of a college kid.

As Willett sang about spending "another supper time in the hole," a full-blown hootenanny erupted, with the 10 additional musicians making a rhythmic racket by banging on bottles, cymbals, bass drums, even a metal garbage can lid. "Yours truly on trial, I testify!" Willett yelped, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. It had the feeling of a finale -- but it came just five songs and 20 minutes into the hour-long set.

It was hardly the last triumphal moment for the group, whose music tends to suggest Jeff Buckley sitting in with the White Stripes to cover Tom Waits or something.

Even the softer songs smoldered on stage. Particularly when Willett sang in a sweet falsetto, which had the effect of making him sound like a woman. "Backseat of your station wagon, listening to Nina Simone," he sang on the woozy, ethereal "God, Make Up Your Mind." "One hundred years of solitude and only 12 years old."

For a kid, he sounded very grown up.

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