By EW Staff
Updated July 13, 2007 at 04:13 AM EDT

Not many bands are born with a certain silver utensil in their mouths. But since the release of the breakthrough album Girls Can Tell in 2002, the members of the fittingly named Spoon have had them practically shoved in their faces. Each album since has been greeted with a tidal wave of hyperbolic praise from critics, to the point where Josh Tyrangiel’s Time review of the band’s latest all but screamed “Don’t listen to us, just go buy the record!” Or download it illegally, judging by the crowds at the two New York shows that just kicked off the group’s national tour: At both last night’s Rockefeller Park show at the River to River Festival and Tuesday’s in-store performance at the Union Square Virgin Megastore, singer/guitarist Britt Daniel told the crowd that the just-released album “is called Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. How many of you have heard it?” Cue the thunderous applause.

Speaking of thunder, several hundred soggy concert-goers showed up to last night’s free gig despite a horrendous storm that rained buckets on Manhattan. It finally slowed to a drizzle and stopped entirely before the band’s slated 7 p.m. start time, leaving the crowd hopeful. Things took a while to dry out; meanwhile, the PA played through an array of feel-good oldies fittingly dominated by songs from the Supremes. There’s a lot of that Motown charm in Spoon, which was particularly evident later in the show when they launched into the Berry Gordy-meets-indie rock “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” (joined by a horn section!) and again in the staccato keyboards of “Everything Hits at Once,” which aren’t so different from those on “Where Did Our Love Go.”

The band finally went on at 8:15, and the crowd — antsy from standing in the mud for an hour or more — rejoiced. The audience only got larger as the night wore on, growing from a few hundred to filling the field. They opened with “Eddie’s Ragga” and “Don’t Make Me a Target,” a pair of new songs anchored by unflinching rhythms and Daniel’s white-hot guitar work. I saw Spoon two years ago, in support of their album Gimme Fiction — this is not the same band. Even the old songs had changed: the guitar solos became squalls of distortion and Daniel, always a charismatic frontman, took to the mic with unexpected ferocity on older classics like “My Mathematical Mind” and “Jonathan Fisk.” The four-piece band played with unrestrained intensity; “Chicago at Night,” from Girls Can Tell, was a definite highlight as Eric Harvey did double duty on keyboards and electric guitar. They were joined on a few songs (including Gax5’s Jon Brion-produced single, “The Underdog”) by four horn players, who helped keep the sense of exuberance flowing.

It helps that Gax5, critics crying wolf aside, is arguably the band’s best album and definitely its most celebratory. Tracks such as “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” the strutting “Finer Feelings” and “The Underdog” move with a loose energy that’s hard to capture on record, especially for a band known for its precision. Spoon have never been the most freewheeling group; their brand of spare, rough-edged indie rock has always been a focused, craft-oriented creature. Craft still plays an enormous role in their music — if anything, Daniel’s melodies have only gotten better over the years — but there was a fire to their performance that was something to behold at this point in the band’s career.

In an indie landscape full to bursting with teenage MySpace acts, Spoon are practically elder statesman. It’s all the more impressive, then, that they performed with the enthusiasm of bands half their age — and in the face of a New York thunderstorm, no less. One can only wonder where they’ll go from here, but here’s to hoping they return soon.