“These British boys are so polite,” giggled a girl with long blonde hair waiting for autographs after the Twickenham, Londoner boys, which form Noah and the Whale, performed at Chicago’s packed Lakeshore Theater a few days before Halloween. The punk-rock and folk feel of the group has spawned comparisons to UK faves Belle and Sebastian, and as fans convened in the theater’s lobby, the group good-naturedly enveloped random fan’s shoulders, making each one feel like she was the only one being framed in a digital camera’s aperture after an emotionally evocative two-hour show in a 330 seat theater.
The group named themselves after the sea-faring mammal in the film, The Squid and the Whale as well as for the director of the movie, Noah Baumbach. Their music is so popular and contagious that one song “Five Years Time” is being currently used in a car commercial. Two other girls chatted, and the second discovered this about the first. “It’s your first time?” After seeing an excited grin, she added, “Your world opened and lots of good things poured in.”
The friendly Jack the drummer who replaced Doug Fink (he announced in August he was leaving the band to go to medical school) stood outside in the brisk air, closing his eyes and enjoying the whoosh of a Chicago breeze. “The Windy City – that’s what we came here for,” he smiled. Two cousins from Dallas queried fans about where to find the perfect ‘dive’ for a post-show drink. They were just in for the weekend specifically to hear the band, and had decided not to complain that Mohammed didn’t come to the mountain, but judging by their enthusiasm, the trip was clearly worth it.
Though the mood now was light, a few minutes ago it was anything but. Lead singer Charlie Fink had broken up with his girlfriend, Laura Marling, former vocalist of the Noah camp. The concert hall air was thick with grief and angst, but it was unpretentious like the personalities of the band members. The crowd felt this grief, except for the girl in the fishnets who complained that there was “nowhere to dance”.
To get to know these lads better you might want to watch the DVD which goes along with their new CD The First Days of Spring, documenting the demise of a failed relationship using camera shots of urban and rural ethereal landscapes. You’ll be transfixed by the mossy green forest, deserted beach, expansive but lonely highway and a neglected overpass. Notice the cameos of ‘Noah’ members smoking cigarettes or posing in pensive reflection. See the old red jalopy parked in front of a series of bright yellow parking garages. The feelings of desolation are bound to arouse your senses here as well. When not performing, these musicians make movies.
The boys, unfortunately, had all instruments and tour gear stolen from a car park in Manchester, England earlier in the year and had to sink their hard-earned money into new gear. Curly-haired Charlie Fink opened the set with “Blue Skies”. His groaning baritone fielding military drumming and fiddler Tom’s sheer lines were evocative.
“This is a song for anyone who can’t get out of bed,” he brays. The song has a depressive feel and anyone who has lost at love wants to hug this svelte sad-eyed guitarist standing under the hot stage lights. Now, don’t wait for the mood to lighten anytime soon. The slow methodical strum of Charlie’s guitar and solitary notes of the electric piano cascade as two blue lights pan the house. A plaintive melodic line is echoed by the electric guitar. “It’s been a while since I’ve stared at the stars,” sings Charlie and I honestly wish I would have remembered my telescope.
“Give A Little Love” has an austere dark quality, dark and dirge-like. Jack thumps the drums heavily. The hook which is simply, “If you give a little love / You get a little love” is mouthed by several dreamy-eyed twenty-somethings. The violin, which seconds ago was throbbing like a disconnecting heart, is now subdued, heavenly fluid and melodic. The players thrash around on stage practically smashing like atoms into each other’s personal, molecular space.
Charlie observes the crowd and makes the understatement, “I sing songs about heartache and grief.” Urby, the bass player, waves his shaggy blonde hair which matches his mustard colored t-shirt. His generous bangs hide his nose’s bridge and could make him an award winning body-double for the Addams Family’s Cousin It.
“That telecaster was first played live today,” announces Fink bemoaning the fact that they had to purchase new equipment. “Love of an Orchestra” begins and the piano riff pulls it together. The boys sing in tandem, “If you gotta run / Run from hope.” It’s refreshing to hear a band that keeps coming up with originals.
Fink nods his head in disbelief. “Did I sing the same verse twice? I’ve gone completely mad,” he grins. “I just sang that in the wrong key, I apologize,” he continues. “Rocks and Daggers” features brilliant finger-picking and a floating narrative. Fink sings, “Although his boat is steady now / The sun always shines down on your shoes.” The song sails forth across a steady and grinding meter that couldn’t easily capsize.
“This song’s called ‘Mary’,” says Fink. It’s purely vocal and electric guitar and he muses about the cold blue wind as it blew over the heather. The landscape of the UK rears its rural head repetitively in the band’s lyrics. Thoughts drift to rustic places, the changing color of wheat and sun-streaked ponies. The songs are dreamily sad, but filled with nutritious chunks of hard-earned wisdom. Yeah, it’s amazing that a band this youthful can write about love with such a rough-hewn edge.
Fink looks at the audience and says, “I worried we were giving the impression that we get new guitars everyday. We got our guitars stolen by some filthy scumbags.” He sings the heart-felt “Stranger” as he pushes the morose lyrics from his larynx, exclaiming “Last night I slept with a stranger for the first time since you’ve been gone.” The emptiness of abandonment is translucent throughout his delivery. The uncomplicated guitar strums accentuate his bleak words: “Everything I love has gone away.” Even when he chimes in with a lyric about being happy in a year’s time, it doesn’t matter because tepid teardrops have already filled your eyes unless you’re simply made of Stonehenge.
Fink heaves a sigh of relief and surveys the stadium rows in the theater. “This isn’t a movie but looks like one with all the seats,” he says. There’s not much response. “Just trying to make a joke” he admits and the crowd loosens up. Charlie still needs a hug but maybe he will feel better next year. The dark thud dripping with the melancholia of the electric guitar and somnambulistic violin weave closely together like school-girl French braids. The boys thrash against each other more fiercely than before with their psyches spilling emotion. Urby shakes his blonde bangs and flashes a peace symbol. The crowd is ecstatic and claps violently for their return. Fink grabs the mike.
“We all love Chicago very much. Thank you for coming to our show. This song is called ‘The Shape of My Heart’,” Fink smiles. Jack’s red, plaid shirt wrinkles around his forearms as he dives into the drum kit. In front of me, a line of hats face-off. A baseball cap, a fedora and a British-looking cap affix themselves to the stage. These hats tell us more than who is style-conscious this evening. These hats tell us that Noah and the Whale cross economic and gender divides.
The second encore gears up as Fink sings, “You can’t break my broken heart” as blue stage lights and lights that illuminate flower petals flood the stage. The sheer loveliness of Tom Hobden’s violin playing makes us catch our breath. A prestigious jam follows and the piano finally takes off into a meaty solo and Charlie gets down on the floor to play with the pedal controls. He creates some dizzying distortion and the formerly sanguine mood of the audience can be best described as a temporarily befuddled fog.
The entire crowd stands up and gives the boys a thunderous standing ovation. Noah and the Whale slowly leave the stage. Tired as they must be, their humble expressions hint that they are exceedingly grateful that we’ve come to see them tonight. Perhaps they would have stayed longer, but it wouldn’t be very polite to miss their plane.