[22 March 2006]
By the time I got my assignment to cover UK indie-pop sensation The Boy Least Likely To’s first New York City appearance, I was sick with the flu, exhausted from a string of late nights in the lab, and generally cranky.
Third concert of the week on short notice? Not what I needed. I shot off an email to decline, only to wake up first thing the next morning somewhat recovered and more than a little curious. I realized that I did actually want to see this, one of the most essentially fun, charming, and perhaps disconcertingly mortality-concerned new bands around. I immediately shot off an email to un-decline.
The show was on Friday night at R&R in the meatpacking district, one of those anonymous blank-doorway-and-cellar-stairs venues that somehow thrive in this city. In this case, R&R’s outward invisibility was rendered entirely inconsequential by a line of concertgoers snaking out to the corner. Apparently the place is a meatpacking-district fixture (oh gentrification!). It’s also a reminder of why I don’t typically try to go anywhere fashionable.
As press, I was among the last to actually be allowed inside—after the ticket holders, the non-ticket-holders, and the members of “Val’s party”. This afforded me a lot of time for people watching (an odd mix of meatpacking chic and East Village indie fashionability) and to discuss the remarkable forces of hype which create anticipation for a band whose debut album is not even available in the states. As it turned out, the fellow I happened to be talking to was a pretty good authority on hype: he managed Clap Your Hands Say Yeah up through last Fall.
With all the time outside, there was no need for opening acts to stretch out the night. Still dead tired and a little ill, I clutched an overpriced vodka tonic and eased through R&R’s basement catacomb, taking my place in the crowd as the music gradually moved from the inexplicable (a remix of U2’s “Vertigo”), to meaningful (the Kinks), and then to the introductory (some version of ‘60s-pop-inescapable “Puppet on a String”).
And with that, Boy Least Likely To took the stage, blasting into the rousing-yet-wistful “Hugging My Grudge”. Suddenly, I felt a bit better (or at least distracted). While the band proper consists of only two members (Jof Owen handles words; Pete Hobbs takes music) their touring setup is swelled by five additional (and talented) members—including players on glockenspiel, recorder, and guiro. This allows for a surprisingly faithful reproduction of the meticulous pop arrangements present on the album. This eclectic instrumental variety, combined with the bright yellow backdrop, mostly upbeat twee arrangements, and thoroughly endearing stage banter lent the show the feeling of the best morning children’s television I’ve ever seen.
For their part, the engaging Owen and Hobbs seemed thrilled to command the attention of such a large crowd (the floor was packed by the time they began), laughing, distributing surplus cupcakes, commending an enterprising audience member who had brought along bubble liquid, and using “Eye of the Tiger” as an amusingly out of place intro for show highlight “My Tiger, My Heart”.
While the above may paint an image of fun frivolity, The Boy Least Likely To’s intrigue is bolstered by the fact that they are more than merely light and catchy. Though often drawing from the same innocent, nostalgic palette as Hobbs’ music, Owen’s lyrics also exhibit surprising unease. Singing of his hometown, he bemoans the gradual shift of old friends and acquaintances to “monsters” with kids, families, and normal jobs, and in several other songs is beset by fears of his own mortality—embodied by both the whimsical (spiders) and deadly serious (embolism). Fortunately, for their part R&R’s proficient sound preserved both the intelligibility of the words and good separation across the wide array of instruments in use.
By the time the set was over, I was not only glad so have overcome my initial flu-fueled indifference and the wait outside to see The Boy Least Likely To play, but found that that the show had actually strengthened my regard for the band, lifting it from vague “yeah, they’re pretty good” approval to full anticipation of the album actually getting released stateside (April 4, on the band’s own characteristically named Too Young To Die imprint).
And I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. The audience yelled, the band reappeared, and admitted that they’d already used up all of their songs (I’m told the same thing occurred in Boston). “We’ll just play one from the beginning of the set again,” Owen told us “and hope you’ve forgotten it by now.” Though it was their second time through “Hugging My Grudge” and few among us had forgotten, nobody seemed to mind.