LCD Soundsystem deserved its headlining slot at the Virgin Mobile Free Fest Saturday, for it's one of the most exciting rock'n'roll bands in the world right now. I know, I know: some would dispute that it's really rock'n'roll and even more would dispute that it's even a band. After all, the new LCD Soundsystem album,
This Is Happening
, was created almost entirely by singer-songwriter James Murphy on his own, relying on the kind of synths, samplers, and drum machines that imply hip-hop and techno more than rock'n'roll. It was definitely a band that took the stage at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Saturday night, however, as Murphy was joined by keyboardist Nancy Whang, drummer Pat Mahoney, bassist Al Doyle, keyboardist Gavin Russom, guitarist David Scott Stone, and percussionist Matt Thornley. And though the first song, "Dance Yourself Clean," was performed without guitars or conventional bass, it was best described as rock'n'roll. The song, which also kicks off the new album, began with three minutes of a strange prelude where Murphy murmured to a sing-song melody and a tom-tom drum pattern about all the jerks he knows. Then the song suddenly exploded with a synth riff as distorted as a grunge guitar chord and with as much quiet-to-loud drama as any Nirvana track. "Don't you want me to wake up?" Murphy shouted, dropping the detached cool of a dance track vocal in favor of a rock'n'roll roar. The band broke out two guitars for the second song, "Drunk Girls," but the sound didn't change appreciably, for the riffs were just as loud, distorted, and implacable, whether played on synths, samplers, or six-strings. It was the contrast between that pounding background and Murphy's astonishingly personal tenor that gave each song its drama, no matter what the instrumentation. It was precisely because the rhythm section sounded so industrial and predetermined that Murphy's vocals sounded so human and spontaneous. It was not so different, really, from Ray Charles improvising over a carefully arranged horn chart. The guitars disappeared again for "I Can Change," and the wall of synths and samplers sounded like grinding gears, far harsher than the recorded version. Against this backdrop, Murphy sounded achingly romantic: "Dance with me until I feel alright." He never sounded the least bit sentimental, for one could always hear him struggling through the industrial soundscape, never quite sure if he would make it through to the love he desired. And that soundscape was far from static, for instruments were continually added and subtracted to the mix, gradually accumulating density and tension, just as Murphy's vocal grew more agitated, often leaping into a giddy falsetto. Even without guitars, it was a classic rock'n'roll moment. With his blue-plaid shirt untucked over his beer belly and his pudgy face unshaven, Murphy is the antithesis of a rock star, a concept he mocked on songs such as "Watch the Tapes" and "You Wanted a Hit." Be that as it may, he possesses one of those rare voices that can sound vulnerably personal even as he bellows over a cacophony of beats and riffs. Moreover, he knows how to write catchy little tunes for that voice so it reach out through the stomping dance grooves and grab out sympathies. And that's just what he did on the five songs from LCD Soundsystem's brilliant new album and on the six older songs, most notably "All My Friends," still his best vehicle.