“How are they live?” It’s the question you always ask before you head out to see a new band, because in a frightening amount of cases, what sounds pretty good on record turns to mush or anarchy or ho-hum in a club…and in a few counterbalancing instances, bands that seem so-so on vinyl (or whatever CDs are made of), burst out of their cages on stage. So, on this mid-May evening, the plan was to be wowed by the shimmery guitar textures and Dylanish growls of Philly’s the War on Drugs, while maybe sticking around for Bishop Allen’s clever, bubbly pop.
You really can’t plan these things.
The show was already in progress when I arrived, a local band called the True Jacqueline playing crunchy guitar riffs and singing tight girl/boy harmonies, a la Apples in Stereo. The bass player, whose name is Callie W., looked like the coolest camp counselor ever, in a mini-skirt and bright blue sneakers. She traded lots of “whoas” and “oohs” with the keyboard player on bouncy pop tunes. The guitarist sat on a folding chair—very casual about the whole thing, I thought, until I saw him hobbling off stage on crutches later—but the drummer stood, whacking an abbreviated set of snare, tom, and cymbal without the benefit of a chair. At the break, I bought a seven-song homemade CD for $1, and it turned out to be lo-fi and loosely constructed but really kind of fun, especially “The Wizard” and “Instead”.
The War on Drugs, up second, were really the reason I’d come. The band is Adam Granduciel’s post-Capitol Years project, backed by guitarist Kurt Vile and others. At this show, the two of them play guitars mostly, and another musician switches off between bass and drums. They’ve been getting great press. A Philadelphia Weekly blurb enthused that the band was “channeling the raw intensity of Bruce Springsteen with the world-weary ways of Bob Dylan,” while Paperthinwalls.com gave their first single “Taking the Farm” a 9.0 rating. The buzz has come primarily on the strength of one EP and a string of local shows. The band’s first full-length, Wagonwheel Blues, will be out later this month.
The first hint of problems came at the soundcheck. The two guitarists had barely started to play together, weaving the sharp, clear guitar textures that define this band’s sound, when an earsplitting wave of feedback emanated from the speakers. They stopped, turned down the volume, and shrugged it off, but the issue clearly hadn’t been resolved. The root was a long and apparently unsatisfactory soundcheck. The sound, when they began again finally, was muddy, its sheen obscured by layers of fuzz, the vocals barely audible. The opening song was, I thought, probably “Taking the Farm”, but it was so indistinct you could hardly tell.
That was the first song. During the second one, they blew out the monitor. You could tell immediately that they couldn’t hear each other, because the beat splintered off into three different directions, everyone slightly off, exchanging furious glances at each other to try to find their way back. Towards the end, they were finally in sync again, power chords matching up with cymbal clashes, but by then it was over.
To their credit, the guys kept working on things, and as the show went on, you began to hear the bright, piercing guitar tones, layered one over the other in shimmering strata, and the strident, Americana vocals. In short, towards the end, they started to sound like the War on Drugs, which is to say like Dylan howling over late-period Sonic Youth guitars, like a world-weary, western swaggering Arcade Fire, like Springsteen wandering into a shoegazer’s convention. It was easy to imagine, at this point, the three of them having a great show, their enveloping sound picking us all up and transporting us to another place…but it was just a hint, not the performance they might have been capable of.
And so we came to Bishop Allen, a Brooklyn based indie-pop band. They toted guitars, keyboards, drums, assorted mallet percussion, and a ukulele onto the stage. Surely they were nervous about the club’s tattered sound system.
Bishop Allen, as you might know, is led by a pair of Harvard grads, Christian Rudder and Justin Rice. In 2003, they started a band named after the Cambridge roadway that ran by their apartment. They made a poppy, hooky, home-recorded album called Charm School that same year. For their second act, they decided to put out one EP per month for an entire year, each named for the month of recording. In 2007, they kicked the DIY habit and signed with Dead Oceans. Broken String, comprised largely of songs from the 12-month recording jag, came out in the summer of 2007.
That night, Bishop Allen was starting off a mini-tour, bringing along a new drummer and a reshuffled set of songs, but no one seemed especially rattled. They had never played Pearl Street before, let alone Northampton. Still, it was a homecoming of sorts. Rice recalled that he and Rudder never met until he went to a Jawbreaker show at Pearl Street, turned up at class the next day wearing the tee-shirt and found that Rudder had been there as well. In any case, the pair of them, plus a drummer, bass player, and female keyboard player seemed entirely comfortable, and the sound—what a relief—was inexplicably clear and cogent.
Bishop Allen’s songs were wry and literate. They started soft, most of them, the guitars clamped and tense, the vocals soft and unadorned. Yet at some point, nearly every song in the catalog bucked and reared, its irrepressible pop buoyancy building up under the surface until it could not help but bubble up. And when that happened, you could expect hand-claps, expect harmonies, expect joyful “doos” and “dahs” and hooky exuberant choruses…even if the band was singing about the end of love or the world, as it often is.
Consider, for example, “The Monitor”, with its historically accurate, detailed accounting of an iron-sided fighting vessel, starting in quiet description and ending in buoyant catchiness. Or “Flight 180” with its wistful Christmas-at-Rockefeller-Center beginning that leads inevitably into the big four-on-the-floor boom of celebratory bass drum. It was like the pop was reined in precariously behind contained palm-muted rhythms. It broke through eventually, and singer Rice did a helpless, heel-kicking dance in its sway. By “Like Castanets”, Rudder had switched to a tiny, tinny ukulele, the keyboard player to melodica, and the whole sweet-sad melody bobbed along on a shuffling two-beat. There was the triumphant sing-along “The end is coming soon” chorus of “Middle Management”, the fragile octave-leaping poetry of “Choose Again”, and the wonderfully hooky conclusion to “The Same Fire”. As Rice urged his song’s protagonist to “Take another picture with your click click click click camera,” a girl in the audience was taking his photo with her ring ring ring ring phone, and if it had not been a little nauseating, it would have been awfully cute. And near the end, as if to upend all this almost-too-sugary poppiness, the band covered Fugazi’s “Waiting Room”. The set was fun all the way through, as bubbly as just-opened soda water. It brought intelligence and melody and good clean sound all together for the first time that evening.
Still, on a great night where everything went right for Bishop Allen, it would be easy to imagine, following the problems that racked their opener’s set, things going the other way.