by Jonathan Durbin

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs w/ the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the Liars
Tues Sept 24, Showbox, $15 advance/$20 DOS.

Earlier this year, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion played a benefit show for Bust magazine in New York City. As the evening wound to a close, both bands were backstage, sweaty and spent, sitting among their friends and piles of equipment. Cristina Martinez--winsome Boss Hog vocalist and wife of Jon Spencer--lauded the younger band's female lead singer with some of the most glowing praise possible in rock 'n' roll's underground: "It's so great to see a girl up there, giving her all and not giving a shit," Martinez told the various bedraggled members of Spencer's entourage. "She's a role model," agreed Russell Simins, the Blues Explosion's drummer.

The admiration is definitely mutual. If the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are the spiritual and musical stepchildren of anyone, it's Jon Spencer and friends. Like the Blues Explosion, the younger New York three-piece plays a high-octane, bluesy sort of rock 'n' roll. It's hard to believe guitarist Nick Zinner can coax all those dirty rock riffs from his amp, but his skills are reminiscent of Spencer's own guitar work. And like Spencer, mysteriously named vocalist Karen O is an enigmatic frontperson--to put it mildly. Known for staggering on stage as if drunk, wearing shredded clothes, and spilling beer on herself before spitting it at the audience, her sexual energy is at once contagious and electric, her voice alternating between schoolyard-sweet and a coarse shriek that could peel paint.

"They've been totally supportive," says Ms. O of the Blues Explosion. She looks a little like Joan Jett and speaks in a rock 'n' roll drawl, as if her vowels were as cool as her songs. "They're like parents to us. When they took us on tour in Europe, they really whipped us into shape. We were thinking it wouldn't be a problem to open up for them, but they kept blowing us offstage--they have such incredible energy. Christ, they played half-hour encores!"

Besides respect for their elders, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs also have the weight of the press going for them. Based on the strength of their self-titled five-song EP (recorded by Jerry Teel, another Spencer acolyte), their music has been praised by everyone from the normally slavering British press to Rolling Stone, which called the band "artists to watch" in 2002.

It's easy to hear why: In "Our Time," the EP's anthemic final track (which sounds a little like "Crimson & Clover"), Karen O tells it like it is. "It's the year to be hated," she sings. "So glad that we made it." Live, she asks the audience to sing along with her on the chorus--and they do. It's difficult to turn down a beauty covered in beer.

"The first time I tried that, I used Goya olive oil," Karen O says. "I wanted to look as wet as possible. But I had to stop doing that because it was impossible to wash off. Now I've stopped doing the beer, too. It's too expected. I'm monitoring the backlash. People can throw beer at me if they want, but I'm not pouring it on myself."

The clothes haven't changed, though. Always in her punk princess uniform--made by designer Christian Joy--Ms. O says she's "got to represent" on stage, and calls the clothier her "partner in crime." It's indicative of the band's sense of community. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have strong ties to the New York scene, supporting local acts by attending shows and even living with two members of the Liars in Brooklyn (the Liars' lead singer, Angus Andrew, is Karen O's boyfriend)--all happy accidents, much like the band's genesis. Karen O and drummer Brian Chase went to Oberlin College together, and moved to New York when Karen attended NYU's film school. They met Zinner through mutual friends, and started playing music together.

Now, two years later, they're finishing their debut album and living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle--all fast living and drunken shenanigans. When Ms. O tells the story of an Austin mishap (an alcohol-soaked evening when she and her friends trashed British band Clinic's dressing room and shoved aside a displeased Courtney Love during their escape), she sounds both proud and a little ashamed, and leaves Zinner to crystallize meaning from the moment. "Touring can be a nightmare for us," the guitarist says. "Everyone gets into moods, and then the whole band gets moody. We're like little girls when it comes to playing shows."