07 April 2009

Faith, Restored : Bishop Allen at Bowery Ballroom, 4/5/09

I must be spoiled when it comes to opening acts. The last several shows I've been to this year have featured some really spot-on openers, so I felt slightly let down last night.

Team B

I wasn't completely taken with Team B's set. They all seemed like lovely people (and indeed, have had a hand in lovely other projects, such as Beirut and LCD Soundsystem and Arcade Fire), and all played an impressive range of instruments – trumpets, French horns, flutes, and saxophones, to name a few. I like when bands explore instrumentation outside of the guitar-keys-bass-drums set up. I was a band geek from the fourth grade all the way through high school, and played in both wind ensemble and handbell choir in college. Most of my musical life has been filled with horns and winds, not guitars, so seeing those instruments onstage was engaging.

That being said, I wasn't super in to the songs themselves or the set as a whole. Although I liked the occasional foray into more jazz- and polka-inspired melodies and beats, as opposed to straight up pop or rock, I wasn’t particularly enthused about them as a whole. A for effort, though. Just not totally my thing.

Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band

As for Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band...I'm torn. Their songs ventured back to rock, and had far more energy and drive, though I fear they may have started to sound like each other after a while.

My main dislike, though, was their keyboardist, who, well. Didn't really play keys. In fact, she didn't seem to do much of anything for sixty percent of the time, other than dance around. Nice gig, if you can get it. Toward the end of the set, their frontman handed her a guitar for a bit, which immediately made her 100% more interesting. Can she play? Then let her.

I'm not saying that keyboardist should also be guitarists as a strict rule. I also suppose it's extremely nitpicky to complain about that instead of, say, their music. But I found it a distraction. After I while, I wanted to say, "Do something of actual musical interest." I was more interested in watching the incredibly energetic drummer whom, incidentally, I couldn't see because of her set-up. (Also, they had two giant poles with half-tambourines attached to the end to be banged into the stage in lieu of an actual tambourine. What? Seriously, just use a normal tambourine.)*

Bishop Allen

As for the headliners: This was the third time I'd seen Bishop Allen, and, from the start, was unlike the other two performances. The first was a tiny, barely-attended show in Northampton, just before I graduated from college. The second was a sold-out affair in Williamsburg on my 23rd birthday. The first show was more reserved; the second was more surreal and I cried through half of the set.

This time, though, things felt entirely more relaxed. During opener "Cue The Elephants," bassist Keith managed to blow out his amp, thus setting the thing on fire. Frontman Justin admitted that he’d never really planned for something like this, although, in retrospect, maybe he should have. Keith apologised near-continuously ("Sorry about the fire!") while Justin had to stop and figure out the chords for "The Magpie" while they switched out amps. Watching the band awkwardly stumble together and then get back up together and carry on was actually, well, fun.

The set included a good mix of new material ("South China Moon," "Dirt On Your New Shoes"), old material ("The Same Fire," "Rain," "Click"), and really old material ("Penitentiary Bound"), which was satisfying for who’s been listening longer than since the release of Nick and Nora’s. (Although the infectious energy of "Middle Management" really can’t be beat.) More than that, they won me over with the live versions of their new songs. It's not that I dislike Grr – I really do like it, in fact – but it lacks a certain roughness apparent on their first two efforts. Onstage, the pop gems that were too refined on disc were infused with the band's own brand of quirky, unpolished charm. "Shanghaied," a song I've never really liked in its recorded form, became immediately lovable live. "Magpie" felt less contrived. "True Or False" was beautiful.

And so on to the end, when both Team B and Mt. St. Helens joined them onstage for closer "Flight 180." Although a perpetual fan favourite, "180" has never been one my personal favourites, but the eleven or so people playing guitar, keys, tambo, bells, horns, whatever they could get their hands on, made it an infectiously joyous occasion. After two overly-emotional prior shows and a record I wasn't incredibly thrilled with, I think this was the Bishop Allen show I'd been waiting for – quirky, charming, energetic yet laid-back. At one point, Justin said something to the effect of, "We've had a lot of good memories on tour. This is the best."

Father, my faith is restored.

The Bowery Ballroom date was the last of their US tour dates (for now); they continue their tour in Europe through May. Tour dates can be found here.

* True, Bishop Allen features female-keyboard / glockenspiel / snare player Darbie, but the difference is that Darbie constantly plays the instruments she's given and sings ethereal back-up vocals through nearly the entire set. She also possesses certain elegance onstage as well that only lends the band more charm. And I’m still not buying the faux-tambourine thing.

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