David Bazan, the man who puts the Pedro in Pedro the Lion, stood on the edge of the stage for the entirety of the hour-long set, desperately looking for someone to trade places with him. His watery eyes and hesitant, slouched stance whimpered with insecurity. This from a man who generally looks as comfortable onstage as a cowboy looks on a horse. Still, he filled the evening with unsettling songs about marital infidelity and how it feels to hurt the one you love, stopping every now and again to offer the crowd a comforting smile. At first it seemed as if Bazan was uncertain if we could take the heaviness of the music. But as the show kicked into gear, it looked like he was more worried about himself.
21 May 2002: Slim's San Francisco
He began the show from that spot bridging the gap between performer and fan—as a seemingly reluctant entertainer, and you could almost see him looking for a good spot to stand in the back of the room. But as the show proceeded, Bazan grew surer of himself. His limbs loosened up and his previously stoic face contorted around every word that he bellowed out. Bazan’s heart was pinned tightly to the sleeve of his faded black T-shirt as he opened with the first two songs from the band’s latest college radio darling release Control.
As on disc, his live singing style is a slightly less slurred version of the Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz as filtered through an imaginary vocoder. This made it more difficult for those unfamiliar with the lyrics to get a complete picture. But “Options”, with its message of complacency in an inadequate but safe relationship came through well enough. Then “Rapture”, which followed, exposed the pleasure and guilt of marital infidelity. Meanwhile the audience cheered Bazan on, as you might watching your best friend up on stage—the one who’s quiet and witty with a magnetic personality all the same. Bazan made everyone in the room feel like they were in on a secret that music fans at other clubs weren’t privy to. Bazan, accompanied by a bassist, rhythm guitarist and drummer, balanced the emotional pace of the show well.
After we had a taste of insecurity they downshifted into “A Mind of Her Own” off of 2000’s Winners Never Quit album. Keeping in line with other Pedro the Lion shows, Bazan wouldn’t take song requests. Instead, he asked the audience for questions during lulls, and answered those who raised their hands. Bazan’s endearing desperation to achieve intimacy with his fans revealed itself in the well-thought out answers he provided us with. Between the small size of the club and the fact that the dusty hall was filled to the brim, it worked like a charm. After a brief dip into Winners Never Quit territory, he stuck pretty close to the repertoire of Control for the rest of the show. Unscrewing a jar of killer bees in his guitar, the group launched into a version of “Penetration” that exceeded the acoustics of the room’s red brick walls, and shook the London-town gas lamps haphazardly fixed around the perimeter. Drums and guitar each penetrated the humid rock-show air with remarkable ease, and suddenly it was as if your favorite rock band was playing in the impossibly small space of your parents’ dining room.
Onstage Pedro the Lion did nothing to betray their reputation for making music about having a relationship with God. Congregants expecting a revival would be disappointed in the show’s secularity. Most likely this was the conscious choice of a band trying to find a happy medium in its fan-base. They want people to get over the whole religion thing and look at the music as a whole. But many agnostics continue to point to Bazan’s band as the Thomas Kinkade, so-called “Painter of Light,” of rock. Meanwhile some listeners who believe in the holy trinity are put off by the themes of marital infidelity and murder on the group’s new album. In a rock and roll world where cool is the gauge by which success is measured, Pedro the Lion are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.
But give the music another listen and you’ll realize that while David Bazan might be a rocker who is Christian, Pedro the Lion doesn’t necessarily make Christian rock. The depth of his relationship with God is merely one of a series of connections that Bazan explores through the music he writes. Relationship ditties are nothing unusual in popular music. Look back through Pedro the Lion’s musical history and you’ll discover ruminations on all sorts of bonds and dependencies from self-absorption to the fragility of romantic love to our link to a supreme being. The quagmire of Control combines all three, and ultimately concludes that they’re one in the same. It’s also the sort of collection that isn’t afraid to stray from its central story. While most of the songs focus on a marriage going sour, Control still takes the time to digress into soliloquies on topics such as the creepiness of corporate culture. Give Control a couple of tries and it’s easy to imagine it serving as background music for future WTO barnstormers gathering around the campfire after a hard day’s riot; contemplating globalization and what their honeys are doing back home with their best friend as they rioted on Seattle’s mean streets.
At one point in the show David Bazan hit the brakes to talk about the last time he was in San Francisco. The band was playing at another club, and as they stood on stage wringing out their instruments someone in the crowd started shouting that Pedro the Lion needed to raise the bar. Just rock out, the fan kept pleading. Bazan sarcastically said that at the time the band was rocking out, for Pedro, and the experience intimidated him. He even jokingly revealed that it was why he hated the Bay Area. Then Pedro the Lion turned up the heat, and “brought it” as the guy at the last show requested. He brought the bad news in each song with a sheepish grin and neighborly charm that distracted from the insecurity that he opened the show with. He did such a good job that the audience forgot anything about the show was supposed to be controversial or bear religious fruit, or maybe it was Bazan that forgot. We stared at Pedro the Lion and David Bazan stared back, both of us wide-eyed that there were no Jars of Clay T-shirts or Stryper patches to be seen. Throughout the show Bazan was to sing of faith not so much as a religious ideal but as a state in a romantic relationship.
“Backwoods Nation” off of their label’s sampler CD Location is Everything was the band’s last shot together, which they wrapped up just as they appeared to run out of steam. That left David Bazan alone onstage for the finale. But we’ll never know what he had in store for us, because instead of going with what was planned he bowed to the wishes of a pleading fan who requested Radiohead’s “Let Down”. When Bazan reiterated that he wasn’t taking requests that night, only questions, the man pleaded that he really wanted to hear it. So Bazan played one request, perhaps to get that extra level of intimacy with his people. What he brought was more than worth the price of admission.