Hanover, NH doesn't have much of a music scene, so it had been over a year since I was at a legitamate rock concert (Guster being the closest I'd come), but I couldn't pick a better band to break my fast than Anberlin. A quasi-Christian rock band, I'd seen them in fall '04 opening for Relient K and, though I've followed them since, they were never on a bill I was that interested in. This, their first headlining tour ever, came two CD's and three years later, and they've only gotten better. Their new album Cities came out a few days before the show, and to honor the occasion they got a great line-up of opening bands hitting the road with them. Well worth the three-hour drive Sunday evening.
The Axis may be the smallest venue I'd ever been to. It is somehow connected to the Avalon, though we didn't see signs for either. They're apparently nightclubs more than anything else, so maybe it's an exclusivity thing. The place was sold out, but there couldn't have been more than a few hundred kids packing the place. Given that most of the concerts I went to in '06 were the likes of Dylan and Springsteen, an intimate (and louder) setting was a nice change.
First up, Jonezetta. On Tooth and Nail records, the same label as Anberlin, they inspired a bidding war in '05 over a few hastily taped demos that resulted in them getting the highest signing in T&N's history. Their first album Popularity mixes loud, aggressive rock with 80's high-hats and hooks. Kind of like Franz Ferdinand with the distortion turned up higher, but definitely living up to the hype. They kicked off their set with my favorite track off the album, Welcome Home in a frenetic blaze of sharp riffs, poppy drumming and a couple stage tricks thrown in for good measure. Their lead singer looks far more mature than most young bands, but doesn't lose any of the energy as they blasted through their half-hour set. Bassist Ty Garvey was the one to watch however. A heavy guy with long hair that was covering his face more than not, he seemed to be doing one-man choregraphed dance moves half the time, thrusting his bass around and bopping around whenever he had a pause. Such pauses were many, as songs like Backstabber and Man in a 3K Suit had stops and starts between verses, choruses and bridges where others featured lengthy outros, musically the most unique thing they do. They ended their set with their current single Get Ready (Hot Machete) which got everyone yelling along the completely incoherent lyrics. The band is clearly young, but with a little work and time they could be big.
Meg & Dia, two sisters from Utah, were a nice addition to the line-up as a group that would rock a little less hard a change the pace a bit. Or at least, that's what I thought. While their album recalls the light spacey pop of Tegan & Sara, the background rock is kept quiet to focus on the quiet vocals. Live, unfortunately, they try to be much louder. Two problems here: one, the songs are pop, not hard rock, and sound incredibly awkward treated as such and two, the girls voices are light and airey, not at all suitable for a grungey background. Songs I like on the record like Indiana and Monster crashed and burned live with such a heavy background, the only relief coming in the one slow song they did. Moreover, lead singer (and instrument-less) Dia has very little stage presence and just looks awkward rocking out. They nailed one song, though, with staccato background guitars and quick and choppy vocals. I found out later it a was a note-perfect cover of Jet's Are You Gonna Be My Girl, but even if it was unoriginal it was well done. Even still, give em a couple acoustic guitars and they'd be ten times better.
Bayside is a band that has been releasing music for years, but is till known as the band whose drummer was killed in a van crash as they left a Denver concert two years ago. Their most recent album The Walking Wounded came out early February and is punk at its most bland and generic. Power chords, scratching slides up the guitar string and background "woahs don't break any new ground, but at least the songs are somewhat catchy. What sets them apart, though, is the singer's awful voice...not a good distinction. That being said, they were a lot more fun live than I was expecting. First of all, apparently they are far more famous than I realized, mentioning that the next time they would play their single Duality would be on Conan O'Brien Tuesday night (here's the video, read on to see why it fails). It quickly became clear that this was not a fluke, as most of the audience where I was up front knew all their lyrics and shouted them all along. The lead singer, then, seemed like just another fan singing along with all his might, making his annoying voice no longer a problem. It was easy to get caught up in the band's enthusiasm as they blasted through new tracks like They're Not Horses, But Unicorns and Dear Your Holiness. Whereas Jonezetta is all potential, these guys clearly have what they are doing well-polished and, unoriginal though it may be, it makes for a fun show.
During the break before Anberlin came on, I was a bit apprehensive; were they as good live as I remember them? Given that the three opening portion hadn't been as good as I'd expected (mainly M&D), I was worried they were just gonna mail it is as so many current rock bands do without really taking any risks. When you've driven three hours, there's more at stake. When they took the stage and broke into A Whisper & A Clamor off of their brand-new record Cities (read a great review of it here), I knew I wouldn't be disappointed. The song had everything that makes Anberlin great - absurdly catchy chorus, lively electro-guitar lines, and a very strange meter, where one line might have five syllables and the next twenty - but is not a big hit, so it made for the perfect opener. The moment the first riff rang out the crowd, closely-packed but largely immobile during the previous sets, went nuts, leaping around and crashing into each other, fists and fingers in the air.
The last chord was still ringing out as they went into Never Take Friendship Personal, off the album of the same name, which inspired even more audience shouting along; my voice was already getting hoarse. I'd remembered Stephen Christian as one of the best frontman I'd ever seen and he was keeping that memory strong, with his jerky dance moves, incessant jogging across the stage, and Roger Daltry-esq microphone twirls. Far more important than that, though, is the fact that in every note of every song he is clearly feeling the music, exerting himself to his limit to put on a good show. Lord knows how many times he's sung this song, but he sings them all as if they're new and he's thrilled to be debuting them to his fans. While it's a very choppy video, you can get an idea with this.
Next up was the song I'd predicted would open the show, Hello Alone. Another one featuring Stephen's soaring vocals, rising to crescendo and crescendo in "Is anybody out there?" and some typically crazed drumming from Nathan Young, who started with the band when he was 16. He's like a tighter version of Keith Moon, and one of the best I've seen, where every slight pause in the singing is an occasion for a wild fill. Hello Alone was quickly forgotten as they started the familiar riff to what may be my favorite song, Readyfuels, the only song they played off of their debut Blueprints for the Black Market. The verses seemed a little sloppy, and the chorus not quite as intensely sung as it deserved, but it picked up as it went into a screamed bridge and flashy solo from guitarist Joseph Milligan.
Adelaide is a song I almost love every time I hear it on the record, but there's something about it that just doesn't quite live up to their standard. I think the chorus is just a little too simple and cookie-cutter, as if it's trying too hard to be catchy. In quite a few of the songs the lyrics come too fast/are layered over each other too densely for one singer to manage it, so the guitarists chime in. Unfortunately, their mics were not turned up high enough and their voices were drowned in the noise. In songs like this, they take many of the key lines, so being able to hear them would have helped.
Back with another one from NTFP with A Day Late, featuring their most challenging opening riff, a series of dissonant invervals resolving into the actual background of the song. As with many of their songs, I'm not sure exactly what it's about, but it's got the killer line "Now we both have separate lives and lovers / Insignificantly enough we both have significant others." A great song on record made even better live, as Stephen was giving it all he had and inspired people to start crowd-surfing. It segued so seamlessly into Paperthin Hymn that I didn't even realize the transition until my friend pointed it out to me later. Given that I didn't even notice they were playing it, there's not too much I can say.
Stephen doesn't talk too much live other than the obligatory "What's up Boston?" and saying song names, but he talked for a minute or so about the next song, saying it was his current favorite one to sing and was the most meaningful to him. As the band strapped on acoustic guitars, I thought it might be some sort of cover, but turns out it was another new one, The Unwinding Cable Car. It's a song of hope that gets as overtly Christian as they ever do, with a chorus saying "This is the correlation of salvation and love / Don't drop your arms / I'll guard your heart / With quiet words I'll lead you in." The melody lines and harmonies get more and more complicated as the song goes on, one part being added after another until each band member is blending together completely different vocal and instrumental lines. One of the most complicated songs they played, and one that got the audience to settle down and really pay attention.
Next up was the most surprising song of the evening in a reasonably predicatable setlist, the 1:12 instrumental A Heavy-Hearted Work of Staggering Genius. It's an interesting melody-free break on the album (NTFP again) from the hook-laden songs that preceeded it, and apparently they thought it would serve the same function live as it led into Dance, Dance, Christa Paffgen. Another song the band clearly plays live simply because they want to, it takes over three minutes to even get to the first chorus, and continued this more adventurous portion of the set. This song has several different non-chorus sections (multiple styles of verses, or mutiple bridges or something), all held together by that "Don't need no drugs, you're my chemical". This one clearly takes some effort on Stephen's part to pull off and he did so magnificently.
The only introduction Dismantle.Repair got was "If you haven't gotten the new CD yet, you can still sing along to this one. Just yell 'Repair!'" The audience was only to eager to oblige the "patron saint of lost causes" as what was left of our vocal chords was quickly shredded. Josh said this was his favorite song live and, listening to the album version not, I can see why. It was much louder and more aggressive live, and worked better because of it.
The last song of the set was the one I'd most looked forward to seeing live, the current single Godspeed. It hadn't made too much of an impression when I first downloaded it from iTunes, but on every listen I like it more until it now is rivalling Readyfuels as my favorite song (apparently this is a common experience in the fan community). What finally got me was seeing the in-the-studio footage on the bonus DVD that came with the album. Stephen tries to sing the chorus about five different ways, all of which are fine but none of which are as good as the final version. When someone suggests he sings the key word "lied" in "They lied when they said the good die young" higher than "they" as a counterpart to the chord structure, he brushes it off saying it will never work. He was clearly convinced eventually, and that is what makes the chorus so killer. Watching them working on adding the "whoa-ho-ho" and "hey hey"s was fun too, but not as much as being able to sing them in person. Stephen nailed the song, although I can't say whether the chorus was as great as it was on the record because we were all singing it so loudly as to drown him out.
I assumed they'd do Paperthin Hymn as an encore, having not realized they'd already done it, but if I had I would have no idea. As it was, they threw a huge (and brilliant) curveball, forgoing any more singalong hits in favor of Cities closing track (*Fin). Nine minutes long, the first half is acoustic and as beautiful as anything they've ever done before the drums and distortion crashes in, turning into Stephen duetting with a choir before a lengthy coda. I didn't think there was a chance in the world they'd play it, and using it as the encore showed that they understood the concept of a concert as more than just a series of crowd-pleasing hits, but a cohesive whole that needs to be thought about as such. The crowd just stood with fingers and open hands raised in the air as the band put all they had left into putting out this perfect version. In a show emphasizing the hard and fast rock'n'roll so much, ending with such a moving number closed it out perfectly.