Rock Stars in Cowville 

NorCal fans flock to UC Davis to see their beloved Strokes.

The Bay's hottest music action this week didn't happen in the Bay at all. Young rock fans from across Northern California descended upon Davis late last week for an eight-thousand-strong, back-to-school rock marathon headlined by Manhattan idols the Strokes.

Finishing up a grueling, nine-month tour to support their third album First Impressions of Earth, the garage-rock quintet that broke in 2001 with Is This It played to members of the largest incoming class in UC history (5,500 new Aggies, ye gods) on Day One of the academic school year for those on the quarter system. It was an artistic boon for the cow town, which is so unknown that the Strokes advertised their engagement as a Sacramento show, and frontman Julian Casablancas gave shoutouts to Sacramento all night.

On a map, Davis looks like an asymmetrical wart along I-80, ten miles outside of the state capital. It's situated on a flood plain, you can see one hundred miles in any direction from the nearest freeway overpass, and rent is $320 a month for a single room. Local radio station KWOD "The Wood" transports listeners back in time to the Strokes' peak with an alternative playlist peppered with House of Pain, the Presidents of the United States, Weezer, and Reel Big Fish.

Thursday found the campus balmy and bright, with sunny temperatures in the eighties and humidity to match. Legions of bicycles swarmed the streets, showing academic support for Chinese communism. With a population of only 65,000, nearly half of it students, the pungent Davis is often eschewed by big-name acts for the nearby state capital or San Francisco. It took a confluence of scheduling issues, the availability of hard-rocking opener Muse, and space in the 10,000-capacity Pavilion at the ARC to convince the Strokes' tour manager to forsake the Bay for the hinterlands. The locals' deep appreciation made Thursday night's show all the more special.

Inside the ARC — a two-year-old multimillion-dollar gym that usually hosts NCAA basketball and volleyball — the bleachers towered over the crowd in big wooden stacks. Teen perfume and still-dividing stem cells spiced the air, as opposed to the normal aroma of cigarette smoke and aerosolized hard liquor. Alcohol was banned, so concession girls in matching Kappa Gamma Delta T-shirts served cups of Coca-Cola. By 8:30 p.m., the audience was so wired on high-fructose corn syrup that three-piece Muse had them pogoing and crowd surfing by song three. Perhaps a couple hundred people beat it after the opener — a critical darling right now — but the crowd up front only got thicker and tighter in anticipation of the headliner.

Outside in the smoking pen, Travis Air Force base resident and transportation manager Scott Lundquist said the Strokes' Is This It was the first album he bought after he came back from Gulf War II. He road-tripped here tonight with four friends from Vallejo, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Sonoma. "It's like a gift that they're out here," he said. "Usually it's a shitty band."

By 10 p.m., the lights went down and five shaggy young men shambled onto the stage to the squeals of the girls in the front row. They ogled Casablancas, who wore a leather jacket, bedhead, and a "too cool for school" attitude. Literally: All five band members dropped out of college to get rich as rock stars. And they're on their way, with their latest selling more than 300,000 copies so far.

"To be honest, a lot of the show depends on how Julian feels," admits guitarist Nick Valensi, who, for the record, says he's never inseminated a cow. "Sometimes he doesn't really want to sing really hard, because it's hard for a singer to scream every night. He can get a little worn out. Generally if the set's short, it means Julian wasn't feeling it that night."

By the time Julian jumped into the audience at the end of the encore, it was fair to say he felt it. The Strokes cherry-picked from their first and third albums, doing all the stuff you've heard on the radio with little changes to tempo or arrangement, plus a cover of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Julian handled the segues with "All right, man. Yeah. Uh-huh. Thanks for hanging around this rock marathon. Aerosmith will be on in a little bit."

And "Sacramento rules, man. Thank you. It's a real pleasure."

Like the songs themselves, the whole show was over before anyone could think of getting bored. UC Davis junior and history major Sharon Graetz beamed. "It was so great," she said. "I usually have to go to San Francisco, but this time they came to me."

Graetz attended with some old classmates from Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, including nineteen-year-old Alandi Stec, who now lives in San Francisco. "I went to class today, then braved the traffic to come out here," said Stec, who's seen the Strokes six times, and had driven to Davis months in advance to buy tickets at a discount. The ladies confirmed the presence of Drew Barrymore in the pit that night. "She's dating Fab," Stec said, Fab being shorthand for drummer Fabrizio Moretti. They then ran off to stalk the Strokes to In-N-Out Burger, an after-show favorite.

The Strokes take a break next month while guitarist Valensi helps care for his soon-to-be-born twins. No word on a new album, or when the Bay may see them again.

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