The Format: Live at the Mayan Theatre [DVD]

[7 January 2008]

By Andrew Blackie

So named because they feel the corporate music industry pressures bands too hard to adhere to a cookie-cutter format for a hit, The Format is a band that spends their spare time showing the love to their fans rather than chasing radio gold. A few months ago they were kind enough to post their second album, Dog Problems, in its entirety for free download from their official websites, and if anyone was in doubt of their generosity after that, they’ve followed it up with a one-two punch of repackaged material to end the year. One-half of the double release is B-Sides & Rarities (after only two albums, no less!); the other, uncut footage of the band on stage, Live at the Mayan Theatre.

As far as intimate concerts captured on DVD go, it’s hard to top this gift of love, not only because of the idea behind it (the box is set out so humbly, it seems unthinkable to suggest it was put onto shelves with anything but best intentions), but also the careful, meticulous presentation, and the band’s radiant, memorable performance. This is a live show done right and with absolutely no creative restraint. All six members are there fiddling with their instruments, with support provided by a backing section consisting of a handful of string and brass musicians reading off scores. There’s a full-sized, genuine piano, a slide guitar, and keyboards on both sides of the stage, to name just a few of the extravagances.

Such elaborate, some might say old-fashioned, grandeur might seem less impressive than it really is, particularly as I’m accurately trying to communicate it through text in cyberspace, but a viewing of Live at the Mayan Theatre makes it abundantly clear that not only is everybody playing all these different things and not screwing up the whole, but the stage isn’t completely packed, smothering the aesthetic value of the set. Ranting aside, it all clicks into place somehow, and voila!—a modern-day stage show of Queen-esque proportions. Except the band has only two albums to go off, so they again treat their fans by performing Dog Problems, their second record, start to finish, in order, bringing to life what they describe as a ‘theatrical concept record’.

To add to the charm, it’s intentionally produced like an old Beatles movie, opening with traditional film credits over the band’s daylight rehearsal, and a psychedelic art design that instantly draws to mind the Fab Four. Even more awesomely, they all dress in scruffy collared suits with matching ties. Full marks for attention to detail.

Of course, The Format is really the Nate Ruess show, the camera training its focus on the vocalist’s face time and time again like a beacon. This is arguably unfair to all else, and if think you’ll get sick of staring into his anguished puppy-eyes in yet another close-up then you’re going to be one disgruntled viewer, but the other members are very good sports about it, swelling intuitively with his outbursts and emotions and just simply grooving with the music. They appeared to be enjoying the experience at the very least whenever this writer got a decent glance at them, which is saying a lot. They could have stood there stiffly and looked bored. They also take the stage with local Arizona unknowns Reuben’s Accomplice for one song (“Pick Me Up”), drawing parallels to Nirvana’s classic Unplugged in New York (whether intentionally or not). For what it’s worth the song, an unassuming number from Dog Problems, is really enhanced in its duet form; sweetly harmonized, with about four guitars boosting the accompaniment beyond what was probably necessary.

The theatre glows with The Format’s uplifting, feel-good presence, and as a viewer you start to get the sense that you’re hanging off Nate Ruess’ every word.  See the range of feelings he brings to “Dog Problems” within five minutes, for example. Their major-key mini-opus reverberates off the walls, highlighting the boundlessly jubilant bubble they conjure around themselves, and if anything, a stark lack of band-crowd interaction. The closest Live at the Mayan gets is an audience and whole band singalong to “Inches and Falling”. This doesn’t change how enthralling it is to watch them play live, and how much more of their music there is to connect with onstage; new dimensions are opened, nuances found where there previously was only studio bombast.
At a track count of 21 songs, it can be a long slog for non-fans along the way, but there’s no way you could accuse The Format of not catering to variety in the meantime. If you’ve never heard the band, pick up Dog Problems and this DVD will serve as a fine accompaniment, plus a few favorites: the heart-on-stage throb of ballad “On Your Porch” is so effortless and emotional it’s painful to watch, new song “Swans” comes over excellent late in the set, a piano-based number about (literally) sailing away, and the immortal “The First Single”, their breakout which remains their trademark and best song. What’s more, an extra documentary (ironically titled ‘If Work Permits’) brings further insight into the charming concept of a complicated relationship disintegration that is behind the original album’s inception.

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