When The Strokes last headlined All Points East in 2019, boos rang out through Victoria Park. Fans were unhappy – not with the band, who put on “a masterclass in the effortless cool that made us love them in the first place”, according to NME at the time – but with the dismal sound levels in the park. Four years later, as the New York indie icons return to top the bill once again, there’s a feeling of deja vu.
“Turn it up!” chants reverberate briefly through some sections of the audience as Julian Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture, Albert Hammond Jr., Fab Moretti, and Nick Valensi burst through their first few songs. Even at less-than-perfect decibels, The Strokes sound great – a conundrum that sometimes makes things frustrating; on the one hand, it’s a joy to hear the likes of ‘Juicebox’ and ‘Under Control’ played brilliantly at any level, on the other, the quiet making you yearn for the volume to be yanked all the way up.
Limitations outside of the band’s control aside, there’s talk earlier in the day – and in the lead-up to the event – of today representing some kind of nostalgia fest. The line-up before The Strokes take to the stage features a good handful of bands who first emerged around the same time as them, from fellow New Yorkers Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Walkmen to the recently returned Be Your Own Pet. On the 6 Music stage, the Instagram account Indie Sleaze has even been given a slot to DJ hits of the era. But to characterise it as wistful is to look at the day with tunnel vision – BYOP are here to play their new album ‘Mommy’, and the bill also features a wealth of newer acts (whether relative to The Strokes’ generation or genuinely fresh on the scene) like Amyl & The Sniffers, Black Midi, HotWax and Picture Parlour.
Tonight’s set from the kings of New York cool is something of a similar balancing act, filling the setlist with crowd-pleasing big-hitters but refusing to go all-in on looking back and get bogged down in nostalgia. The Strokes begin with an exhilarating triple threat that takes us right back to the early noughties, ‘What Ever Happened?’, ‘Automatic Stop’ and a thrillingly early airing of ‘Last Nite’ kicking things off in storming fashion. After, instead of digging deeper into the past, they zoom right back to their current era for the wiry bounce of ‘The Adults Are Talking’.
And so it goes for the rest of the band’s 90 minutes. For every few songs that ignite the audience in huge singalongs – a giddy ‘Someday’ or roaring ‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’ – there’s one that feels like a less obvious selection for a festival set. But even some of those unite the crowd, like ‘Comedown Machine’’s ‘Welcome To Japan’ eliciting yells of the immortal “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?”, or the slow, strung-out ‘Ode To The Mets’, which has everyone singing the guitar melody from the first note. As the latter reaches its peak, and with the crowd still going, Casablancas amps his voice up from elegant drawl to rasped urges, bringing electrifying intensity to the performance.
In years gone by, there have been many a complaint about The Strokes’ spirit on stage, sometimes looking as if they’d rather be anywhere else. Recent visits to London have seen them in quite the opposite mood and, although it’s virtually impossible to make out what they say between songs for the most part tonight, thanks to their penchant for mumbling, they seem to be doing exactly what everyone wants them to – having a bloody good time.
Towards the end of the main set, Casablancas – wearing a leather waistcoat over a white button-up and one studded leather glove – announces, “Let’s make a song called ‘Fallacy’ right now”, and his bandmates launch into a jam as he freestyles words over the top. He keeps his between-song musings to a minimum, as is typical, but ahead of ‘Juicebox’ hands the mic over to the usually quiet Fraiture for a quick back-and-forth. Before a ferocious ‘Reptilia’, Casablancas shares that it’s the last song “before the big encore” – a move he says he regrets when they return to the stage. “I shouldn’t have said we were coming back,” he deadpans, with a glass in his hand. He throws the glass’ contents over himself and continues like nothing has happened: “Anyhoo, thanks for coming.”
Equilibrium quickly returns, absurdity transformed into awe, as the band steps back in time once again for their parting gift. ‘Hard To Explain’ rockets through the night before things wrap up with ‘Is This It’ and one last chance to holler along with your arms aloft. Whether they wanted to come back on stage or not, The Strokes maintain the balancing act until the very end and once again prove they’re masters of the big festival set. Hopefully next time they return, the volume can match their mastery.
The Strokes played:
‘What Ever Happened?’
‘The Adults Are Talking’
‘Call It Fate, Call It Karma’
‘You Only Live Once’
‘Meet Me In The Bathroom’
‘Ode To The Mets’
‘Ask Me Anything’
‘Welcome To Japan’
‘Hard To Explain’
‘Is This It’