An eclectic mix of bands performed at Boston’s Royale the other night. At first listen, the melancholy “post-wave” of Future Islands, the aggressive thrashing of Titus Andronicus and the pop-bombast of Okkervil River could not be more contrasting. However, while the bands differ sonically, they come together with a dense lyrical intellectualism that draws from literature, history, mythology and populism in order to cultivate personal experience.
I viewed the show slightly from above as the Royale offered balcony spaces in addition to the standard floor arrangements. Being short, it was nice not to fight to try to see amongst the masses on the floor (from above, they were arranged in a tight cluster that neatly marked the boundaries of the club’s dance floor); for acts like Future Islands and Okkervil River, it was nice observing from afar, but next time I see Titus Andronicus I’ll have to jump in the crowd. The god-view provided a nice opportunity to see the band play as a unit, with the musicians complementing one another when there was a technical snafu or need for a beverage break. Disappointingly, I also noticed many people texting and surfing the web on their phones (and at least one iPad) during the performance; small thrills came, at the expense of the show, though those Facebook updates.
The night started off late. I could blame Boston traffic (or the ice cream tasting festival down the street), but who knows why the bands did not arrive on time. These things do happen, and at least all three band leaders were kind enough to acknowledge and apologize as they quickly ran through sound checks and re-tuned equipment before and during their sets. As Titus Andronicus lead singer Patrick Stickles noted, this was the back-stage look that audiences don’t get to see. Sure, interesting enough for a one time look, but let’s not make a habit of it.
Future Islands eased the audience into the evening with their bass-and-synth driven post-pop. Lead singer Samuel Herring’s crooning comes across with the same robustness on the live stage, though he was mixed a little low and at times drowned out by his band mates playing. This would be an intermittent issue throughout the night. The songs themselves, largely culled from the latest album In Evening Air (with one older and one newer song to round things out), took on a stronger energy in the live atmosphere, at times prompting members of the audience to shake-it, something I would not have necessarily associated the band with while listening to the album. Herring urged the crowd on, moving about onstage as if puppeteered by a cruel master. Or a heartbroken tin-man, take your pick. Either way, the cruel master took his toll; after the first song, Herring announced that he had split the seat of his pants — and he wasn’t wearing any underwear. No duct tape was to be found for on-site repairs, so the audience — despite his best intentions not to — occasionally were exposed to little more than they had paid for. Herring made note of a couple songs that had started out about happy occurrences yet had somehow turned toward melancholia through the songwriting process. Despite whatever sadness may purvey the lyrics, or technical errors inhibited the artist, the crowd happily applauded at the end of the set.
Titus Andronicus’s raucous Jersey-inspired, Celtic-influenced The Monitor supplied their set list, ripping through “A More Perfect Union”, “Richard II”, “No Future Part Three”, and a version of “Titus Andronicus Forever (...And Ever)” that had the band breaking down, each member playing a stanza individually on their instrument of choice. Sadly, there was no “Theme From ‘Cheers’” for the Boston crowd. Looking around, the heavy garage sound may have been a little more than the mellow indie crowd expected, but one group on the dance floor did attempt something of a mosh and the crowd partially picked up chants of “you’ll always be a loser”, and “the enemy is everywhere” from the appropriate songs. After the final song, “Four Score and Seven”, a smattering of chants erupted for “one more song”. Sadly compressed for time, Stickles shook his head no, whereby the chant changed to “no more songs” before fading out.
Each band acknowledged a contingent of friends in the crowd, but it was Will Sheff, originally from New Hampshire, who received the largest acknowledgment, and his band, as the headliners, the greatest attention. The crowd pleasantly sat by as Sheff and his band had to re-tune some of their instruments mid-set, eagerly awaiting the next pop-folk kick. They did not disappoint, playing mostly upbeat material that focused on new album I Am Very Far and 2007’s The Stage Names. Only four songs, less than a third, were taken from other albums. Two early songs were played solo by Sheff on acoustic guitar, offering a small break in what was an otherwise energy-fueled set. The crowd sang right along with The Stage Names songs, the highlight of which was the quick tick-tick-tick claps (aided by strobe lights) mimicking the clock that starts off “Our Life Is Not a Movie”.
The live show noticeably improves upon the recorded material, the dynamism of the band’s change-ups during songs displaying the evolving nature of the music in addition to their talent and professionalism. The new songs really take advantage of this environment. The recorded versions of “The Valley”, “Piratess”, “Rider”, and “Your Past Life is Blast” can sound flat; there is so much arrangement, orchestration and overdubs that every sound is fighting space, leveling the dynamic ranges null as one multi-tracked note takes over for the next. Live, the sound is spread out, each instrument having its moment to breathe, the occasional effects carrying more impact, imbuing each song with a new life.
Sheff started out the night dressed in a tweed jacket and vest, dark glasses and beard giving him the image of English professor, something the density and imagery of the lyrics would not betray, his stage movements articulating the flourish of poetry. Being a hipster friendly band, a bit of irony emerged when the prodigiously lyrical band ended the main set with the “la la la la la”s of “Mermaid”. By the encore, he was down to a t-shirt, filling in the last minutes before the midnight cutoff with lead single “Wake and Be Fine”, and “You Can’t Take the Hand of Rock and Roll Man”. On the latter, Sheff instructed the crowd to clap their hands above their heads, keeping in time through a large majority of the song, immersing the audience in the music. The show had started late, but he was going to give them their money’s worth and send them home happy. Such live music allows for the display of such dynamism, a connection between performer and listener that can lead to a new appreciation, a sensation of delight amidst mishaps and masterstrokes.