Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kirin J Callinan @ Metro Theatre, Sydney (22/01/13)

VICTORIA BIRCH gets caught up in Karen O’s hypnotising web at the YEAH YEAH YEAHS’ only Big Day Out sidehow.

Watching Kirin J Callinan is like watching a five-year-old scribble all over his favourite book; there’s a persistent need to spoil things, an almost spiteful will to parade great songs in front of a distorted mirror and laugh at their ugly reflection. Stripping his hands of surgical gloves (which is about as theatrical as it gets, no bench pressing from random audience members tonight) Callinan starts his support set with ‘Thighs’. His fine baritone serenades simple rhyming couplets about stars and moons and rooms, lovely ballady stuff if the guitar didn’t piss all over any romantic sentiment by having its volume turned up to ear-bleed.

The set continues in a similar vein as Callinan and three band members boot their way through whatever genre takes their fancy, from bouncy electro pop to industrial instrumentals to spaced out torch songs. Much of it is admirable, a lot of it is strange, little of it is actually likeable. It’s hard to gain purchase on Callinan’s songs because of the tension between a desire to fall for his work and his willful rejection of your affections. He challenges the nature of songwriting and the assumption that songwriters consistently cut out their souls and offer them up in the hope you’ll love them. It’s music driven by ideas, not necessarily heart and Callinan either makes for an interesting, thought-provoking performer or, as my plus one exclaims, an utter wanker.

If Kirin J Callinan’s performance is designed to make you feel uncomfortable, Karen O’s performance is designed to make you feel loved. Tonight is just for you, yes YOU. Karen O is a star, a showbiz phenomenon for the indie end of town. Resplendent in sequins and monochrome zebra print, she bounds on stage like it was only yesterday the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were scrappy art punk renegades prone to messy sets bristling with the promise of chaos and subversion.

It wasn’t yesterday, it was 10 years ago and responses that felt spontaneous and reflexive have been transcribed into pure performance. Watching Karen Orzolek spew water over her face and pogo like she’s mainlined tartrazine is still entertaining, but there’s no way she’s going to fall off that stage like she did in 2003. It’s unlikely Nick Zinner will deviate from the script and start shredding to the sound of screaming feedback or that Brian Chase will start a fight between the drums and Karen O’s ego. There’s no chance tonight will surprise anyone, least of all the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

That said, this isn’t a band going through the motions; choreography isn’t the antithesis of sincerity. Orzolek is a professional performer, she may have contorted her body in exactly the same way a thousand times to ‘Black Tongue’s’ bluesy grind, yet there’s not a hint of fatigue. She still laces ‘Rich and Cold Light’ with sex and magic, writhing against the amps one minute, grabbing the hands of fevered fans the next (like true pop stars do when the folks at the front beg for the smallest of physical connections).

‘Heads Will Roll’ and ‘Zero’ remain dance floor belters and their arrival causes the jam-packed Metro to lose its shit. ‘Maps’ and ‘Skeletons’ provide the ebb, small pockets of tender emotion that Karen O dedicates to,well, lots of people, but of course most importantly “all the lovers out there”. New songs also appear and if ‘Mosquito’ is anything to go by, guitars will run riot like they did a decade ago.

Whether the new material changes the band’s live performance remains to be seen. It’s true that they could keep doing the same thing for another 10 years and audiences would never get bored. Karen O invests enough blood and spit in her on-stage persona to keep fans happy. Still, when ‘Date with the Night’ starts to wobble on its axis it’s a reminder of just how thrilling the band can be – for the first time it’s not entirely clear what’s coming. Nick Zinner turns his guitar towards the speakers as if challenging them to a duel while Karen O lashes the stage with the microphone like she’s never going to stop. I catch my breath and for the briefest of moments my spine tingles.