May 12, 2010
So, there’s some infectious pop ringing through the PA, the bar and patio are vibrating with activity, a packed house—it was a good night on all fronts at The Space. That being said, it was weird to see a five-foot cushion of space between the crowd and Titles, New Haven’s mellow pop child and local opener for David Bazan, put on by Manic Productions.
“Maybe it’s for sitting?” suggested a friend, but the demeanor of the night wasn’t exactly a warm and cozy one. Instead, rows of 20-somethings stood, hands buried in pockets and eyes fixed on the four performers on stage. Titles isn’t the type of band to encourages this response. Though professional in their air, they exude the vibe of nice guys playing nice music. They play tightly strung pop that’s charming at times, cutesy at others (“You’re the antenna and I’m the TV, let’s get together and see what we see”). The highlight of their set came when former member Matt Wilson hopped on stage to alternate between guitar and lap steel on their last song, neatly swapping the pick-up between instruments which added a warmth and depth to their sound. Before the song, he joked about how great it would be if dogs had a sense of humor, since they could do so much damage to their owner through play-dead pranks. The crowd didn’t find this nearly as funny as they should have.
Maybe it was anticipation; maybe it was just an off night. Not for nothing, but the audience may have just been preening for Bazan in anticipation for his performance. By the looks in the eyes of some while he set up, it was clear that there was nobody else waiting in the room—it was just David and them, like it has been since they first heard Pedro the Lion in the 90’s.
The physical change in the room was visible with bodies now clustered around the perimeter of the low-level stage, just under a foot or so of black platform which David Bazan occupied alone. Some stood and some knelt at the lip of the stage, faces raised to him in the pinkish stage light. In a fell swoop, he had shed his red hoodie, pulled his guitar from the case and did a brief sound check. There weren’t any formalities of introducing song or self, just a trio of exploratory chord strums before entering into “Foregone Conclusions” immediately followed by “Transcontinental,” both Pedro the Lion songs. Short bursts of applause bust through the short breaths of silence between each song. This introduction of the set ran more like a playlist than a set list. His mannerism carried the air of performing for 20 years, and the crowd knew it. He is the face of Pedro the Lion, Starflyer 59 and also toured with The Undertow Orchestra featuring the late Vic Chestnutt. He’s also known for Headphones, his brief side project with a penchant for synth. Bazan’s set list reflected this, from “Priests and Paramedics” (Pedro the Lion) and “Hot Girls” (Headphones)—and a wistful Vic Chestnutt cover, “I Flirted with You All My Life.” After his first several songs, he broke the song/applause ratio to ask if there were any questions—lightly at first, but as a matter of procedure after two or three questions were voiced at each pause. Part challenge and part poke at the audience for some entertainment, Bazan picked this up from TW Wilson while touring together in 2000. “Is there going to be a new Headphones album?” “Are you angry at God?” “What is the most difficult song for you to play?” “What was it like going through your change of faith in public?” He met every inquiry with a polite and conservative tone which was just fine to the crowd, evidenced in their sometimes overly eager laughter (re: the unlikeliness of a new Headphones album: “No one bought the albums…I couldn’t justify the amount of money spent on it. I have…” “Bills?” offered a guy in the back to everyone exploding in laughter) and enthusiastic applause.
And as the questions became more personal, Bazan retaliated with answers of greater depth. With each carefully chosen word, it felt like each song carried a heavier burden of shared experience, like he was letting you in on a darkened trial of his. His facial expressions buoyed to the surface in “Bearing Witness,” admitting “And though I’ve repented/I’m still tempted, I admit” above the bluesier, faster-paced chords of his conversely grim realization—he rocked further from his anchored place before the stand, he laughed audibly or furrowed his brow while speaking to the crowd. The evening breathed at ease, and there sat a mutual respect between the wall of faces and the singular Bazan. Though it seemed no one in the room fidgeted from their spot because of being riveted, there wasn’t anyone in particular who sang along with every word—though they hung on them. Bazan acknowledged this by saying how much of a pleasure it was to play to the fans crowded in the warm basement of The Space, and “hopes no one resents” him for playing so long. This probably wasn’t further from the case.
At 16 songs deep, Bazan never cracked from his steady baritone, but let a quick smile go the two or three times he fumbled with his strings. The respect for the performance was in everyone’s eyes, which clung to Bazan as he preceded his last song “In Stitches” with a more secular message to the fans of this generation: to clean up after themselves, and to remember what it meant to be an American before their parents had fucked it up. As he played “Stitches,” uncut strings trembling from the ends of their knobs, the room ached with him in silent acknowledgement. Between songs and responses, it felt like a conversation just ended. It explored the corners of his question of faith, his past, the meaning behind his work. There wasn’t any plea for an encore, because none was needed. “When you write something down you have to go back and account for it. You play these songs and see if they ring true,” he answered during a response about his change of faith. “They let you move on, in a way. “
(Photos: Grace McGovern)