I started going to rock shows when I was 15. What I remember most about those first couple experiences (Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2) was the sheer spectacle and size of it all. It felt mysteriously grown up and scary to be in a huge room with thousands of strangers, many of whom were experiencing levels of intoxication I had yet to become aware of, and to be a visible part of such humanistic mass, clearly separate yet bound somehow by the unifying magic of live sound was truly amazing. Big arena shows like that leave an indelible mark on impressionable young Midwestern boys. I was hooked, essentially, from the start. Fast forward 20 years and however many thousands of shows later and I still get the buzz in my gut when the house music finally shuts off and the talent begins ambling into position.
I had seen Frightened Rabbit before, in a venue quite similar to the Clubhouse’s intimate confines, but not since the new record The Winter of Mixed Drinks and not since they’d expanded into a 5-piece (new Rabbit, ex-Make Model guitarist/keyboardist Gordon Skene). I was supposed to see these Scots back in April, on the eve of what was to be their triumphant, stardom-inspiring Coachella set. Than Eyjafjallajokull erupted. Remember him? That pissed off Icelandic volcano? Frightened Rabbit, if they never truly reach the upper strata, may just look back on that bloody eruption as the de facto speed bump that halted their ascendance from the second-tier level of indie rock bands. With all flights out of Europe grounded indefinitely, the Rabbit missed their big Coachella slot, postponed their massive American tour, and sat on their tuffets in dreary old Glasgow, downing pints and bemoaning their cursed heritage I imagine, which is precisely what makes this tour that much more important. 2010 has been an unmitigated triumph for independent music. There have been loads and loads of great records released this year. The Winter of Mixed Drinks is among those ranks, yes, but a successful tour often makes a record greater, if not more memorable. Frightened Rabbit’s chances of regaining the unbridled momentum generated by 2008’s masterful The Midnight Organ Fight rest squarely on the shoulders of this record, and thus, this tour. If I might speak on behalf of the couple hundred in awed attendance on this night, consider the ship righted.
The band began with new album opener “Things”, its slow-building dirge becoming a rousing outro of white noise before seizing up suddenly and giving way to the strummed first notes of “The Modern Leper”, arguably the band’s best track. That they play it so early in their set not only speaks to their bravery, but to the breadth of their suddenly vast catalogue as well. The crowd feels it from the start, temporarily ignoring the sweltering Arizona heat, focusing instead on shouting along with Scott Hutchinson word-for-word and pogo-ing like London punks. By the time they get to the brittle heart of the MOF material (“Good Arms vs. Bad Arms”, “Head Rolls Off”, “I Feel Better”) we are all, band and audience, soaked in sweat and grinning like thieves. The arrangements are varied, loose and impeccably rendered. They made it clear early on that they were treating this tour as more than just a We Sure Are Sorry About That Volcano tour, but also like a Hey We May Not See You for a While tour as well, and thus felt compelled to cram in as many songs as possible.
The Winter tracks melted in nicely alongside the more familiar stuff, particularly stand-outs “Not Like You” and “The Wrestle”. The band even dusted off “Be Less Rude” from their debut Sing the Greys, scratching an itch for me that I figured would never get scratched. Frightened Rabbit records make great use of the studio, and their songs can occasionally come off a little thin in a live setting, or at least I thought so the last time I saw them, but Skene’s contributions (not to mention his gorgeous, I repeat gorgeous white hollow body Gretsch) do a wonderful job of filling in the gaps and solidifying the Rabbit’s distinct sound. His keys on “The Twist” added a layer of melody to that track that seemed absent as a 4-piece performance.
Hutchinson’s brother Grant is a sight to behold on drums as well. He plays no fills, going from one aggressively bashed out pattern to the next with no transitions and surprising dexterity. It’s the kind of detail that goes unnoticed by most, I guess, but for a drum-fanatic like me, he makes for great viewing.
They closed the set proper with a revved up version of “Keep Yourself Warm”, inviting Sebastien Schultz of show openers Bad Veins to assist on stand-up Toms. The song’s brutal, insular lyrics made for a curious counterpoint to the rapturous reception and overall sense of oneness heaped back upon them by the audience. A sentiment like “You won’t find love in a hole / It takes more than fucking someone / To keep yourself warm” doesn’t seem like a rallying cry, but in the right setting it becomes just that. It was a loud, head-spinning conclusion to a brilliant set. A suitable, three-song encore followed (“Poke” “The Twist” “The Loneliness”) and we were sent back into the desert night, ears ringing. If we are to believe what we’ve been told, this may be our last glimpse of Frightened Rabbit for some time. If that is the case, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s seen this tour and left unsatisfied. This band is well-deserving of the mass appeal that somehow, for some reason, continues to barely elude them.