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Posted at 1:23 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

In concert: Smith Westerns at Rock & Roll Hotel

By Chris Richards

smith westernsSmith Westerns couldn't recreate their on-album magic at Rock & Roll Hotel. (All photos by Kyle Gustafson/FTWP)

The Rock & Roll Hotel is where Washington goes to talk over indie rock's hottest new bands - a club where 20-somethings pay to be seen (and heard) while the latest Pitchfork-approved talents try to justify their hype onstage.

But the crowd's incessant chitchat wasn't the only obstacle that the stylish Chicago buzz band Smith Westerns faced at club on H Street NE on Friday night.

First, there was frontman Cullen Omori's fantastic hair - a long, inky veil that the singer felt compelled to run his fingers through about every 45 seconds. Swoon or eye-roll. Your pick.

And then there was the real problem: How do you transpose your majestic new album to the stage when your band has no chops?

The group's sophomore effort, "Dye It Blonde," landed in January and currently stands as the year's best rock album - a marvelous, glittery, glam-rock suite teeming with dreamy melodies and oozy guitar riffs worthy of T. Rex.

Onstage, those sparkling songs sounded dim and soupy. The drumming was feeble. Omari's singing was thin and allergic to charisma. All those colorful melodies quickly turned dishwater gray. Was this really the same band?

smith westerns

In their defense, the members of Smith Westerns are still young - like, not-yet-old-enough-to-drink young. And their missteps at the show felt emblematic of a larger trend plaguing a new generation of rock musicians.

Remember the 20th century? Back then, before the proliferation of home-recording technology, bands used to gig for years, finessing and fussing over their songs in real time, on a real stage in front of a real audience of real people.
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Then, they'd drag all that blood, sweat and muscle memory into a professional recording studio and commit it to tape.

Today, it's the inverse. With the advent of GarageBand, the Apple software application that Smith Westerns and a gazillion other young troupes have used to record their first albums, bands can futz endlessly over their laptop recordings before playing a single show.

By default, much of today's rock-and-roll is more about composition than performance - and for Smith Westerns, the gap between the two seems particularly jarring.

"Imagine Pt. 3," one of the most sprightly tunes on "Dye It Blonde," felt limp and claustrophobic as the band bopped around the stage as if hoping to stumble into the beat. As the song ramped up for its walloping finale, Omari and guitarist Max Kakacek botched the liftoff, trying to bend sour notes into sweet falsetto harmonies.

To his credit, Kakacek did "Dye It Blonde" proud throughout the quick, 11-song set, doling out those instantly-likeable guitar leads when his band needed them most.

They were most effective during "Weekend," Smith Westerns' most winsome tune. For a moment, his guitar heroics actually shushed the crowd.

smith westerns

By Chris Richards  | March 7, 2011; 1:23 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags:  Smith Westerns  
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Next: Live last night: Dirty Beaches, the best band I saw this weekend

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