I’ve been told there’s nothing like a showcase concert, and the coming out show thrown for the Stills by their new label, Vice Recordings, was my chance to find out. Upon arrival I was directed by the woman at the door to a very nice man with a very long list of names. So long that it had the potential to nearly fill the entire space. There were so many that the band had its own guy handling it. Then there was the free Red Stripe to ensure everyone had a good time. Now the Stills were good, but a little free beer never hurt anyone.
After picking up a round of Jamaican goodness, I began to jockey for position in the crowd. After not having much success, I realized that there was plenty of room at the front of the room, by the stage, left by the chattering circles of my fellow guest listers. That’s when the whole thing began to remind me a little bit of high school. Which is kind of fitting, since musically the Stills remind me of high school. Mostly because their best songs are simple chord progressions with the lead guitarist usually not doing a whole lot more than playing the same chord as the rhythm guitarist, but higher and voiced differently. What can I say; I took music theory in high school. O.K., and they also remind me of high school because they reference bands that were all the rage with the eyeliner set when I was in high school. And I don’t mean those poor bastards copying Brett Michaels. Sonically, the Stills are fairly backward looking. But the beauty of hindsight is that it is 20/20, and the longer you wait the truer that becomes. You have the luxury of avoiding all the mistakes that seemed to mean so much at the time. And the Stills do. They take the best parts of moody bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and the Cure but rock more than any of those ever did when I saw them in high school.
After settling in near the edge of the stage, some guy started trying to get through. A little annoyed since there was plenty of room just behind me, I let him by. He started talking to someone standing near me, and then got on stage. Unrecognized by the crowd, Stills drummer Dave Hamelin had made his way to the stage through the crowd. Shortly, the rest of the band arrived on stage, and they opened with an energetic version of an older song, “Love and Death”. Refreshingly unapologetic for a group so clearly influenced by some of the drearier bands of the ‘80s. Maybe they do have a little in common with that other eyeliner set.
About halfway through their set, it was time for the soon-to-be-released album’s title track, “Logic Will Break Your Heart”. This is easily the most carefully crafted song on the new album, and also the most complex. Unfortunately it showed, and was one of the band’s few weak moments. Lead singer Tim Fletcher didn’t quite nail all the high notes, but to his credit managed to stay in tune in a rock and roll sort of way. And in true frontman fashion, Fletcher was responsible for the most touching event of the evening. When Fletcher broke a string on his guitar, he replaced it with…exactly the same guitar! Very nice to see such a sensible use of his advance.
The rest of the set, while not exactly riveting, was packed with one guitar-driven number after another and carried through very well. Helping this happen was lead guitarist Greg Paquet, who sounded great. But with about a dozen effects pedals, he had no excuse not to. Still, it was nice to see effective restraint despite having so many options; often too much processing turns out a mid-range mush that feeds back all night.
At the end of their set, the party was over. There was no more free beer and the concertgoers, most on the long guest list, filed out on to the street for cigarettes and schmoozing where scene movers and shakers were a bigger draw. As most attendees drifted off into the night towards the next event, almost forgotten, the Stills cooled down with a few friends and maybe even an errant fan.
On their new album, the Stills have moved beyond their humble roots of an asynchronous recording project and have showed glimmers of promise, that there might be some truly great songs yet to be written once they completely gel as a band. This show was the first in an intense tour schedule that will probably make or break them. I look forward to seeing them again after playing almost every night for a month and a half. I have faith that Fletcher will soon be hitting all the high notes.