Defiance is in its nature. With a name like the Boxer Rebellion, there’s an innate duty to shock. It’s not something that beats one over the head; it’s a pulse of light that magnifies with each moment until all is blanketed in a sonic sheath. Those “wow” factors are usually reserved for marquee names like Coldplay, who can fill the Hollywood Bowl with no problem. But when the Boxer Rebellion stormed El Rey in Los Angeles, the immensity could have filled the Grand Canyon.
It’s not the volume or rock force that defines this London band’s grandiosity; it’s that intangible otherworldliness it creates in a live setting. The cascade of lights over the players dazzled, as though they were celestial bodies radiating at dawn. It’s a harmony to which not too many other groups can adhere. That is the members’ rebellion: No egos allowed.
The quartet stresses in its press materials that no man is more important than his brothers here. Its 2009 sophomore release is even called Union. Quite a heavy order, considering the suaveness of singer Nathan Nicholson (if Adam Levine and Jake Gyllenhaal mated, Nicholson would be the result) or the prowess of guitarist Todd Howe. (What other “indie pop” axeman can efficiently play his instrument behind his head?!)
The evening was a triumph of the nice guy. The show itself was a makeup date from last fall, when one of the Boxers suffered a devastating (yet to be revealed) personal tragedy, and the group had to cancel its tour. Present at El Rey was a refreshed band, surprised and humbled by the fans’ outpouring of love. Nicholson thanked them for making this TBR’s biggest concert in America to date. The adoration was merited, as the Londoners only come to the States once in a blue moon.
It was doubly merited in that the Rebellion performs better live than it does on record. The 2011 album The Cold Still is pleasant enough but is a textbook example of good background music. The melodies creep into one’s psyche but don’t demand full attention.
On stage, however, the Boxer Rebellion comes alive. Nicholson is a keen front man, finding a niche between a twitchy Thom Yorke dance and a swagger that Bono would applaud. And his mates are no slouches — Howe beat the daylights out of the percussion arsenal as drummer Piers Hewitt throttled his kit during the bombastic “Evacuate” Bassist Adam Harrison held his own, nimbly going from a peaceful octave walk in “Caught By the Light” to a snarling nu-metal jaunt in the oldie but goodie “Flight”.
Part of the reason why the Boxer Rebellion’s show was so surprising was that its lead-in, Nashville native Canon Blue, was such a drag. It just felt like indie-by-numbers: You had the bearded crooner, dripping with sincerity and aloofness; there was geeky bloke on the skins who demonstrated too much exuberance for the kind of music he was playing; and then there was the fashionable accessory dude with extra-curly hair who mastered every instrument in sight. A for effort, fellas, but try it once more with feeling.
The boys of the Boxer Rebellion looked like they didn’t even have to try. True lovers of the arts are Jedis: There is no try, only do. The audio levels between vocals and instruments blended perfectly, even when Nicholson meandered among three microphones onstage. (Heck, even the roadies were entertainers — prior to TBR’s set, one of the crew tested the mics with “Check! Check! Czechoslovakia!” A collective chuckle emitted from the audience.)
Talk about a band that deserves to be in the big time. Here’s hoping the Boxer Rebellion crosses the pond more often.