June 3, 2010
Oh, those su-uhmmer nights. Where a bar-by-night is packed to the gills as a venue-by-Manic Productions. Where a show without any locals still generates enough attention to nearly sell out. An hour before Hooray for Earth was to go on, a sloppy line of people loitered on the Daniel Street sidewalk, three or four people deep at some points. Cops fidgeted in the one-way street at some invisible threshold by their cars with lights ablaze (“Are they arresting Mark?”) as if designating the difference between the Stonebridge bar and the bands about to perform across the street.
There wasn’t much vindication for the early birds. The low-lit room, though full, had enough unoccupied body-sized nooks to make it easy to maneuver around during Hooray for Earth, who opened for the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Surfer Blood. For not being as fawned over as the night’s two breadwinners, Hooray performed a highly memorable set. Harsh red stage light set a feverish tone. It was both a visual and audio frenzy as Hooray for Earth sawed into their first song with each member wielding weapons of percussion—a maraca in one hand, a giant drum stick in another—in addition to the drum set and other percussive contraption already set up (a prelude to Surfer Blood’s similar set up). This gave way to a set presented by veritable rhythm-junkies who banged out a well-composed jungle of subdued melodies to the pulse of a collective heartbeat. It could have been the sound or frontman Noel Heroux’ diction, but even the vocals sat like another feed of melody into their hodgepodge. Their set felt dense for an opener—frontman Heroux hardly took a breath to squander on banter between songs. Every so often adjusting his oversized glasses, he was the deflated maestro to Hooray, making their keyboardist seem especially endearing in contrast when fumbling for his mic as it drooped below his mouthline two or three times.
The merch area resembled a bustling marketplace. Three folding tables featured a spread of vinyl, CDs and overpriced shirts (Surfer Blood shirt: $15). Hooray for Earth had held most of the total crowd captive, but not excited about it. The faintly spinning disco ball suspended from the ceiling felt a little premature.
For a few reasons, there was a lot of talk in anticipation for Surfer Blood. One reason is that there was a Baeble Music camera crew there to film for a live DVD. Another is that it was the indie media darlings’ first stop in Connecticut. Another is that Surfer Blood fans really love Surfer Blood. The kind of love that spawned plots of stage dives to the tune of a band that’s generally tame, anthemic beach rock.
During the set, the band seemed to know this better than their audience. Maybe it was the distracting camera on the left jacking up their showmanship. Maybe it was their frequent technical difficulties dampening the crowd’s libido. Either way, it wasn’t a strong performance. The band was detached and sloppy, which doesn’t bode well for their songs. Songs like “Anchorage,” a six minute long track that is trim and tidy on their debut full-length Astro Coast was sloppy and rushed. Much of their performance was lost in the wash of kitschy riffs and stadium-like drum kicks. A couple of stage dives happened, but they were out of place in the midst of the disconnection. And then the band dissolved at the end of their set: vocalist and guitarist Jean Paul Pitts stumbled haywire around stage and into the camera, Marcos Marchesani grated his keyboard against TJ Schwarz’ back as he wailed on a cymbal. Cameras rolling, we know. Someone up front waved their crutch in the air in place of applause, but it looked more like a surrender than a good-humored gesture.
It wasn’t long after that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart gathered themselves up to take the stage. Almost immediately, they held a different kind of command over the room with their totally oversaturated sound, where starry-eyed hooks emerge through honeyed vocal harmonies and unobtrusive keys and guitar. The four-piece rocked in their respective places in a daze of pastel stage lights and their signature Frankenstein of melodic fuzz. They were light, happy and familiar with the crowd, but slid through their set list with a polite precision.
Pains had a weird act to follow, though not necessarily a hard one. Standing in the back of the dense crowd, it was easy to get distracted (especially with the hulking flatscreens on the walls displaying the basketball game). All in all, their music isn’t exactly memorable. But once you’re hooked, you’re left flopping on dry shore by their feet on stage. It looked like a charade at times, songs like “Young Adult Friction” so drenched in fuzz and layered keyboard and vocal harmonies via Peggy Wang that their set didn’t need any Surfer Blood’s stage show. Vocalist Kip Berman looked both timid and contemplative as his huge eyes held the gaze of no one in particular in the crowd. Wang occasionally danced like a Muppet by her keys, but mostly looked like a misplaced porcelain doll and alternated between harmonizing and tossing her jet black hair in and out of her face. After significant recognition in 2009 by a range of critical websites and publications for their self-titled full-length, their bashfulness is a little more rationalized and especially more adorable.
They seemed exceedingly pleased with the wordplay on Milford they poked at a couple of times throughout the set. Wang hunkered down close to the mic: “We put the Milf in Milford!” As far as everyone there was concerned, the digs were welcomed—as long as three or four more songs would follow.
(photos: Grace McGovern)