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They’ve dedicated “The Road”, the second to last number of the night, to Jean. Jean is the slight, wide-eyed woman with her hands in prayer pose and her heart pressed to the stage. Overcome by frustration when the original spring date for this tour was postponed indefinitely, Jean painted, in oil with her fingers, a portrait of the Turin Brakes duo; she presented this labor of love to them earlier today, at an in-store performance, along with a fervent request for this, her favorite of their songs. This is the story Olly Knights tells as Jean cranes her neck upward, her eyes tearing in disbelief. And when he begins to sing, she looks on the verge of losing it completely—as if at any moment, she will melt, or burst, or disappear.
20 Jun 2003: Bowery Ballroom New York
What is it about some bands that inspires obsession—causing grown women to paint or cry; causing grown men to follow them from coast to coast; inspiring devotees to tattoo lyrics on their arms, name their children in honor, reorganize their lives as if devoted to a religion? All groups have fans, sure, but there are some who provide more than music to the people that listen to them—some that are patron saints, or gods, or better. Madonna, the Cure, the Dead, to name a few: these performers have transcended being musicians and become lifestyles. What the ingredient is that fosters this fixation, I don’t know; but whatever it is, Turin Brakes have it, and bad.
So tonight, I’m surrounded by multitudes of these teeming followers, who are getting good, and drunk, and rowdy, pumped high on a tizzy of acoustic, British folk. To witness this, admittedly, is a somewhat peculiar experience. After all, as far as I have known, the appeal of Turin Brakes comes in their ability to meld perfectly into one’s solitude. They rarely rock, and seldom even rouse—they much more often brood, or intuit, or mull. This personal aspect of their music is chalked up by the fact that a Turin Brakes fan in this country seems a rare breed, indeed. But tonight, among their kin, the better part of this sold-out crowd has not come to revere solemnly, but raucously. It’s a little like walking into a church only to encounter a rave.
Not to mention how loud everything is. Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian have only two guitars between them, but they’ve brought a fellow to man the synthesizers, turning up both the adrenaline and the volume. Opening with “Blue”, the first song off the 2003 Ether Song, the effect of this is almost too much to bear. Speakers on the stage’s flanks reverberate heavily with the lower registers of sound, Knights and Paridjanian’s vocals at times lost among the shudder. But these overwhelming levels don’t deter the crowd, only make their revelry stronger. At the song’s close, applause explode ferociously, and people all around are calling out requests.
Apparently I’m not alone at being caught off guard by the energy generated by their folk-rock, for Turin Brakes themselves seem equally dazed by their popularity. Dressed in plain T-shirts and denim, with their all-access passes taped observably to their chests (as if they feared not being let backstage without them), the pair hardly look as if they were ready to wow 500+ New Yorkers tonight. And, aside from the volume, the show begins with little bombast. “Stone Thrown”, a calm, twangy pacer off Ether Song, follows second, and tonight’s version of “State of Things” is set in slow-motion, drawn out and gauzy, Knights passionately slithering out the lines. Still, there are people in the crowd who are dancing, their arms flailing like blitzed-out hippies at a be-in. Knights, who often sings with his eyes closed, emerges from his trance to appear almost stunned at the audience’s intensity. Paridjanian, on the other hand, keeps his eyes open, peering out into the crowd with a look of almost suspicion. I’m not sure he trusts us.
It’s during the first quick number—“Slack”, from their debut The Optimist LP, that the experience starts to equalize. The live keyboard gives the song a grittier feel, and the listeners, finally reflecting what they’re hearing, are appropriately going wild. “The Door”, kettle-cooked, is twitchy, and earthy, and filling. “Pain Killer” thrusts and plunges, gorgeously commanding. Paridjanian’s stare switches from suspicion to seduction. Knights’ hypnosis is itself mesmerizing. We are hypnotized.
From here on out, everything seems to make sense. The remainder of the set, paying almost equal homage to both their albums, feels full, and beautiful, and right. They leave the stage once, and for the first time ever, I swear a soul doesn’t budge from the venue. Instead, people are stomping and clapping, begging for more and ready to riot if they don’t receive. The close of the first encore inspires the same reaction, and Turin Brakes come out again, to perform Jean’s song and a little known (except for among this crowd, of course) B-side.
Who knows how, but Turin Brakes demand this kind of mania. You can see it on their faces as they perform, more passion emanating from them than from eager lovers wrapped in one another’s arms. Their fans come to their shows practically dripping with the stuff, casting it off like rain-soaked clothes, until their emotions are naked and free. What is generally reserved for the private times is big, and noisy, and unapologetically public here. It is also radiant, and captivating, and live-saving.
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