Charm. Wit. Teen dream looks and a vaguely Scandinavian accent. Sondre Lerche has all these qualities and a knack for composing ear-friendly melodies. That Lerche isn’t more famous is as great a musical mind-boggler as any. His failure at being a household name is certainly not for lack of output: Lerche, who turned 30 on the day of his September 5th Bowery Ballroom show, has been releasing albums for a third of his life. With only a live album and reissues to promote on this go round, the particular occasion for this tour seemed to be that of reflection. Lerche asked Facebook fans to send requests for each of the tour’s dates, and so obscurities and old familiar tunes that (by Lerche’s admission) could’ve been constructed a bit better were played in favor of cuts from more recent releases such as Heartbeat Radio. However, such occurrences as birthday greetings sung in both Norwegian and English kept the night from being the usual evening of reflection that a 30th birthday suggests.
Prior to Lerche’s entrance, opening duo Fancy Colors tricked out the Bowery stage in streamers and other requisite birthday decorations. This resulted in a scene Lerche described as a “five-year-old’s birthday party”, but also allowed him to throw props to the condensed and largely engaged audience throughout the night. Still, just like Lerche’s music, the singer used considerable restraint; he neither relied too heavily on the decorations nor allowed them to get in the way of music or performance.
A central Lerche trademark is earnestness, and this could be why — despite his Brooklyn residency — Lerche is not a known Brooklynite, or someone who those with a tendency to dress ironically flock to. With songs that employ Prefab Sprout just as much as Brazilian pop, Lerche’s sound is one that could never be construed as trendy. Add to this an impressive amount of guitar solos at the Bowery show, something which isn’t commonly seen in many happening circles, and the appearance of genuinely having fun and you will know Lerche’s odds at hipness. Not scrimping on guitar solos became Lerche’s greatest asset that night, as it meant that meeker songs were given new life. Opener “Dead Passengers”, from Lerche’s debut Faces Down, became sprier and looser but not sloppier. The title track from sophomore release Two Way Monologues and its standout song “On the Tower” morphed from loungey reflections to fleety, breezy delicacies, with the former being augmented by the spinning disco ball above the Bowery’s stage.
Other alterations were more insightful. Lerche turned the song request gimmick on its head by performing one of the most requested tunes, Two Way Monologue‘s “Counter Spark”, while simultaneously critiquing it. This real-time commentary, while perhaps a little too knowingly self-effacing, was a refreshing bit of honesty that kept proceedings from getting overly precious. Self-effacement struck again when a fan near the front asked Lerche to play his cover of Orange Juice’s “Poor Old Soul”. “You won’t hear anything nearly as good tonight,” Lerche remarked. Lerche’s ability to be the affable outsider is both another key to his charm and another reason he remains relegated to well-respected yet small venues. As he admitted after describing the Facebook campaign as a way of making the shows more democratic, and very clumsily pronounced the last word, he pointed out, “I’ve lived in New York for seven years and still can’t pronounce ‘democracy’.”
There were moments when the night became almost too precious, such as when Lerche pulled out the sing-along favorite “Modern Nature”. However, this is a song impossible to ugly up, and so the habit of female audience members singing Lillian Samdal’s part and Lerche showing off his vastly improved vocals by singing without a mic will likely never die. Still, Lerche is not entirely toothless: after announcing the newly released Sondre Lerche songbook, Lerche joked, “Beck is on my ass for putting mine out first… Sheet music is the way of the future.” In the largely mealy-mouthed indie world, this is as close to a diss as one can ask for.
At the beginning of his set, Lerche remarked about his live album, “Why listen to that when we have this?” This sort of counter intuitive remark is what one should expect from someone as sincere and who enjoys creating music as much as Lerche. Perhaps this is another reason Lerche has yet to become a superstar; he’s not trying to be anything, he seems to be playing for us out of sheer pleasure. Maybe more young artists of today should follow suit; it may result in getting “Happy Birthday” sung to you twice in an hour.