When back in 1992 Harvard Square’s House of Blues opened, it was the first of what would become a chain of venues that have since appeared in major cities like New Orleans and Los Angeles. Largely because of its relatively modest performance space, the Cambridge site has remained the only House of Blues franchise that features blues artists rather than popular rock acts. So it was odd that as part of the Cambridge House of Blues’ 10th-anniversary celebration, an up-and-coming rock act played an early 8 p.m. set there a week ago Wednesday.
For OK Go, a popular, poppy, and well-practiced Chicago band who’ve spent the past couple of months doing promotional in-store gigs and autograph sessions as part of an intensive effort to create a ground swell of national support for their homonymous Capitol debut, it was just another opportunity to expand on a growing fan base whose size will ultimately determine their future. And the road-weary foursome (who have added a fifth utility sideman to help flesh out their keyboard- and percussion-rich material) did their best to please the all-ages crowd with a raucous set that featured everything from an a cappella hip-hop inside joke to covers of tunes by the Specials ("Nite Klub"), Elliott Smith ("Clementine"), and, yes, Rick Springfield ("Jessie’s Girl," of course).
On disc, OK Go have the sound of a super-tight neo-new-wave band who draw heavily on formative ’80s post-punk influences like Elvis Costello (they’ve been known to cover his "Oliver’s Army" live) without dating themselves too much. The guitars have clearly been touched by the overdrive of ’90s grunge, and the pitch-perfect vocal harmonies and carefully crafted hooks reach as far back as the Beatles and the Brian Wilson Beach Boys. When you see them live, you can understand how OK Go became the toast of the Chicago scene: they’re a party band who bop around to tightly wound backbeats, play loud, hard, and fast on the energetic numbers like "Get over It" (the first tune on the Capitol disc), and let singer Damien Kulash Jr., with his rock-star looks, seduce the crowd on slower, more melancholy tunes like "Return."
But as perfectly as Kulash fits the role of the heartthrob frontman, and as potent as the arena-rock power-chord choruses of OK Go’s most radio-friendly tunes are, it’s still not clear where a band like this fit into the current pop landscape. They’re too heavy for the adult-contemporary audience, too rock for Top 40, and not metallic or angry enough to fit the modern-rock profile. And though the young audience who comfortably filled the House of Blues show looked as if they’d be right at home at, say, a Weezer gig, Weezer have always been grungy enough to find a place for themselves on the radio in a way that OK Go, with all their quirky hooks, don’t come close to. But if the jury’s still out on their future, OK Go nonetheless have the right mixture of ambition and ability to play all the necessary industry games. And that cover of "Jessie’s Girl" is pretty irresistible.