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Emmys 2017
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On the Scene: Young the Giant rock the college crowd in New York

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Young The Giant
Robb D. Cohen/Invision/AP

What’s the ideal soundtrack to shooting a bottle rocket out of your butt? No one attempted such a thing at Hammerstein Ballroom on Saturday night, where Young the Giant were playing their second consecutive “Mind Over Matter” tour date in New York City. But it wasn’t hard to imagine the largely college-age crowd on a different weekend, at a party closer to campus, watching the kind of fraternity hijinks recently chronicled in the vivid first paragraph of this article. They were, after all, drinking beer out of plastic cups, mingling with the opposite sex, and watching a dude in an untucked dress shirt dancing by himself.

That dude was Young the Giant singer Sameer Gadhia, and he’s not actually anything like a drunk fratboy. His group, though, falls squarely into the dorm rock tradition as established by Dave Matthews Band. (A friend of mine who became president of his fraternity obsessively loved DMB. Now a doctor living in Miami Beach, he studies Buddhism and still sees Dave in concert.) That tradition calls for good tunes and chill vibes. But dorm rock often does more: It primes the curious college brain with dense lyrics—words you can dissect on headphones—while also easily rising to the demands of a party playlist or an outdoor concert.

You’d never mistake Young the Giant for a jam band. But in many of their songs, they carve out the kind of open spaces that seem to release energy from the stage and back into the audience. When they played “Eros”—a slack but nimble Mind Over Matter track that’s either about a guy wrestling with his conscience, or a bro playing mind games—the minute-or-so instrumental outro rolled effortlessly into the solo drum part that opens “Guns Out,” a song from their first album that feels more committedly menacing (“Oh, you can’t hide for long/I want to spend the night”). Under the chill vibe, something colder lurked.

Dave Matthews, actually, explores sex and aggression with more humor, sensitivity, and verve. (“Crash” is a classic, as far as that goes.) But while all dorm rock requires a measure of earnestness—to make it relatable on an intimate level, and ostensibly worthy of sharing with friends—Young the Giant cuts theirs with a healthy dose of melodrama. Vance Joy, a singer-songwriter who opened the show, threw this into relief when he sang “Snaggletooth,” a deeply sincere acoustic ode to a woman with a wayward chopper. (In more ways than one, it’s a warm endorsement of Jewel.) Gadhia, on the other hand, sings his dark lyrics a bit like a Disney villain. And the band itself tidily mashes up of rock from all over the spectrum: One song alone might remind you of Broken Social Scene, Muse, DMB, David Bowie, Animal Collective, or fun. It’s rock as a musical theater, for folks who shunned drama club in high school.