Cage the Elephant unleashes primal, alt-rock mayhem at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

Zainab Ali/Senior Staff

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Although Cage the Elephant has previously expressed distaste for its music being pigeonholed into musical classifications and genres, there’s certainly no denying that the band’s performance on the night of June 23 embodied the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, bringing glitzy and clamorous mayhem to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco.

Before Cage the Elephant graced the stage, fellow alternative band Portugal. The Man performed the opening act with a 14-song set, as the audience quickly erupted into cheers as the band sauntered on stage to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.”

But the enthusiasm proved to be a one-way street. Rather than interacting with the audience themselves, members of Portugal. The Man utilized a hypeman, who became the conduit through which the band would vicariously communicate with the audience. The lack of reciprocity with its crowd created a jarring and off-putting effect that served as a detriment to the experience of its show.

This was perhaps only saved by the crowd’s continued excitement, while they still engaged in screaming during the band’s live renditions of hit songs from its latest album Evil Friends, such as “Modern Jesus” and “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.”

In stark contrast to Portugal. The Man’s lukewarm presence, Cage the Elephant’s set began and ended with a contagious energy that seemed to emanate primarily from the frenzied kicking, shimmying and pelvic thrusting of lead singer and frontman Matt Shultz.

“I’m not much for words,” announced Shultz between songs, as he resumed dancing across the stage. While Shultz certainly shared the same brevity as Portugal. The Man, the difference between the two is that the former interacted with the audience without necessarily talking to them. Instead, he was able to fluidly and genuinely convey messages to the audience with his movement on stage.

But the frenetic dancing of Shultz was just a single element of the band’s chaotic hullabaloo. It was accompanied by gritty guitar screeches, deafening percussion and echoing chants from the audience during crowd favorites such as “Punchin’ Bag” and “Mess Around.” Saturated with different colors and transfused with creeping clouds of fog, the stage seemed to more closely resemble a psychedelic fever dream rather than a concert venue. This effect was perhaps most evident during the band’s performance of “Mess Around” — wavy synths and fuzzy riffs filtered through the smoke as the lights pulsated from above, matching the hurried heartbeats of the dancing audience members.  

At times, the only thing visible behind the smoke would be Shultz’s silhouette, jumping, dancing and pinballing across the stage like a hyperactive, bizarro version of Peter Pan’s shadow. Adding to the surreal “Lost Boys” feel of the set, Shultz began to howl after performing “Take It or Leave It” and informed the audience that it was a “howl of gratitude.” He held out the microphone, motioning for the crowd to join him. Needless to say, Bill Graham quickly filled with the loud, guttural “awoos” reverberating from packs of fans raising their heads toward the ceiling in unison.

The stage was accessorized by a trio of small platforms studded with warm orange lights and rows of spot and flood lights decorating the space above, creating an atmosphere of glamor and grandeur. In its essence, however, the performance was still able to retain a sense of intrinsic classic rock simplicity. In an industry that can at times seem rife with attention-seeking, headline-writing gimmicks, there’s almost a feeling of nostalgia and appreciation that follows Cage the Elephant in both its earnestness and its natural magnetism.

That particular theme seemed to be distilled throughout Cage the Elephant’s set. Despite the success over its decade-long career — which has undoubtedly helped facilitate its more extravagant set design and venues — at the heart of it all, Cage the Elephant is still a rock band that doesn’t need to rely on the exorbitant to make its live performances unforgettable.

Contact Josh Gu at [email protected].