Tindersticks came over from England to play three back-to-back shows here in NYC, their first and only U.S. appearances this year. These shows were also out of the ordinary, as they hired a 13-piece orchestra to accompany their brand of well-crafted pop, making this the only “chamber pop” show of my life. Given the environment and quality of the music and sound, I doubt I could see/hear much better.
For those who have never been to St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, Brooklyn, this venue is unlike most “rock” venues and could not have been more appropriate for the Tindersticks show. There is comfortable seating for all, the staff is nice, a velvety, monolithic curtain hangs separating the seating area from the bar, and, best of all, the sound system is superb. Before the show started, a song cycle of rare soul, reggae, and dub was playing through the PA, setting the mood and perhaps giving us a peek into a less obvious sensibility behind the Tindersticks’ musical inspirations.
The band quietly came out on stage to a waiting orchestra and a cheering crowd. They were true to the uniform as every member but the keyboardist was well-dressed in suits with no ties. Without a word they started the first song of the set, a song from the French film soundtrack Nenette et Boni. By the end of the song, I realized vocalist Stuart Staples sounds exactly the same on recordings as he does live, a rare talent for a recording vocalist. But the sound as a whole was simply impeccable. I don’t remember ever hearing drums sound that separated and precise at a live show. Sure, there was the occasional guitar/microphone feedback, but this only added to the sound.
The set continued flawlessly, with Staples only uttering tiny “thank yous” between every other song or so. For a couple of songs the violinist (who, according to sources, has a Ph.D. in Mexican Literature) sang backup and even sang one song himself. His voice is as nice to listen to as Staples’; they both possess the same breathy pensiveness that makes this music a mixture of sentimentality and intelligence. By the end of the show, I was left with the desire to hear him sing more.
The atmosphere at St. Ann’s during the show needs to be acknowledged too. Outside, it was the first real autumn night of the year, and inside, there was a respectful silence in the auditorium, as people sat back in their chairs sipping their drinks, and sometimes a few heads would be bobbing precisely back and forth to the now-passionate, now-restrained rhythms performed onstage. Toward the end of the Tindersticks’ set, the silence was broken by a man’s English-accented voice, screaming “You sexy bastards!!!,” a smart accolade which then broke a small smile in Staples’ face. This statement, although at first disruptive of that coziness that enveloped the show, turned into a immediate realization of just what kind of music we were listening to: this wasn’t just a grown-up’s lullaby, it was more perverse than that. It’s soft, chamber pop with a glimmer of other genres, which would surface and then be contained by orchestral uniformity.
In the end, my night would’ve been complete had the Tindersticks broken from their seemingly strict aesthetic and given more hints that they’re somewhat rooted in punk rock (as they did when they recorded “Marriage Made In Heaven”, a duet with Niki Sin from the seminal early ‘90s British punk band Huggy Bear, or they at least could have played “Here”, their Pavement cover). Every element seemed very intentional, but I would have welcomed just an ounce of experimentation within the chamber pop, even for just one song.