When the Fiery Furnaces Perform Live, You Are Set Aflame

On stage, the Fiery Furnaces play their strikingly, deliberately hard to classify music with an exuberance that pulls you into their fiery vortex and sets you aflame.

I don’t listen to the Fiery Furnaces much. I have most of their records, though – from Gallowsbird’s Bark to this year’s Widow City – and I’ll probably buy their next album and the one after that. But, like I said, I don’t listen to them all that much. Yet, I see them perform every time they come to town. I will line up in the snow and stand there through the deeply subpar opening act (Brooklyn high-school band the MGMT), drinking beer and getting psyched.

By the time the Fiery Furnaces take the stage, I’ll be (seriously) giddy with excitement and expectation. And then, after a show, I will seriously consider going Deadhead on them, getting a van, and following them down to Buffalo, to Detroit, to Montreal (I could sell grilled cheeses in the parking lot). Why? The Fiery Furnaces put on one of the most rewarding, engaging, and singular rock shows you will likely see. Amid the clutter of indie bands who (like the hapless MGMT, snoring their way through their opening set) can’t figure out how to do anything “new”, bold, or otherwise interesting, the Fiery Furnaces stand apart.

Their music, strikingly and deliberately hard to classify, is played with such exuberance, playfulness, and sincerity that it’s difficult not to be pulled into the fiery vortex. In an era still (still!) dominated by irony and distance, a time when I can count on my fingers the number of bands I’ve seen this year who seemed genuinely overjoyed to be playing music for me (hi, Hold Steady), the Fiery Furnaces remind us that there is still room for musicians who make, not just play music.

I am in the semi-silent minority on this. Last night, the room was less than two-thirds full (after the venue was switched from the larger Phoenix Concert Hall to the more intimate Lee’s Palace). Part of this stems from the fact that what the Fiery Furnaces do up there is pretty unhinged. Performing as a foursome, siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger (vocals and organs, respectively) lead their rhythm section (Bob D’Amico on drums, Jason Loewenstein on bass) through a series of callisthenic changes, keeping everyone on their toes, never certain where the next beat will drop.

Seeing the Fiery Furnaces perform live is invigorating, but it’s also about as alienating as can be for those convinced that predictable melodies and chord progressions are what pop music is all about. Here, meter and tempo changes hit your head like whiplash; the mood swings abruptly from heavy downtown jazz to fingertip piano and hook-and-groove while the lyrics spin incessantly out of Eleanor’s mouth, forceful and over-enunciated.

The last time I saw them, my friend had to stand at the back of the room because the music made her dizzy. Normally, that might be a bad thing, but don’t we need some dizziness from time to time? Few experiences are as fulfilling in the concert-going world as walking out of a show, knowing you’ve just seen something surprising, unusual, and something the local indie club scene hasn’t got on tap. The Fiery Furnaces offer themselves to us – weirdness, unpredictability, boisterousness, and all – and we’d be fools not to take it. Now, I’m going to go and put on a record by someone else.