A decent-sized crowd turned out at the Firebird last night for the infectious energy of the polymorphous pop group Islands.
Openers Steel Phantoms were almost shockingly good. Though the Brooklyn band has been playing as a foursome for less than a year, lead vocalists Yos Munro* and Aaron Harris are longtime friends and have been in bands together since college. (Harris was the pinch hitter of the evening: he sings and drums -- gasp! -- for Steel Phantoms and is Islands' drummer on this tour.) From the moment the band started to the final burning note, guitarist Jesse Newkirk IV performed as if it were the final moments before the apocalypse and all he wanted to do was play the fucking guitar. It was a thing of beauty.
Steel Phantoms' sound was killer, straightforward rock, fueled by blazing guitar and bass grooves and ignited by Harris's expert drumming. Munro sounds like a young Jonathan Richman -- the Modern Lovers are an obvious influence -- though the tone changed when they traded off and Harris sang lead. Steel Phantoms delivered controlled chaos and concise rock without losing steam.
There were a few murmurs from the crowd when Active Child's harp was brought onstage. But after their first few songs a very vocal, very inebriated guy in the front, hereafter known as Tall Drunk Guy, yelled out, "You guys are the shit. The fact that you play harp blows me away. You rock it!"
Frontman Pat Grossi, a former choirboy, opened with "Ivy," a short song that called to mind an '80s prom ballad, followed closely by the understated majesty of the harp on "She Was a Vision." Active Child's singular sound is due in large part to Grossi's attention to aural negative space, the moments of quiet in between his layered vocals and soulless, but still affecting, drum machine. He shone on the liquid slowcore of "Wilderness," and he told me after the show that it's his favorite song to play. "I'm in Your Church at Night" was the standout number of the evening; loud and spectacular, it best showcased Grossi's skill on the harp and his angelic falsetto.
The band mentioned sound problems several times throughout the set; the harp was giving feedback, the bassist's monitor wasn't loud enough, and they asked more than once for more vocals. Grossi's displeasure at the way the set was going was obvious**, but he did his best to salvage the last half by picking up the guitar and ripping through "Weight of the World" and a cover of Joy Division's "Ceremony"*** with angular riffs and diffuse rhythms.
Nick Diamonds, aka Nick Thorburn, and Islands walked out all in white, with the lead singer sporting mismatched spandex sleeves and a hoodie shroud that he occasionally put on his head, making him look like a flamboyant KKK member. The Montreal band opened with the slaphappy "Vapours," the title track of their 2009 LP, and the crowd ate up the entire set, bopping along and in some cases screaming every lyric. Tall Drunk Guy and his friend, who drove up from Kansas City to see Islands for the first time, acted like they were at the rock show of their lives; had the audience's size or the room afforded it, there's no doubt they would have tried to crowd surf.
Diamonds' performance was effortless. He bounced on and off the monitors and gracefully disentangled himself from the mike cord when it snaked around his leg, swung the mike nonchalantly over his shoulder and took to the keys, his slim fingers depressing them so minimally (dancing over them, almost) it was amazing any sound came out at all.
Islands' set married classic pop sensibilities to balls-out prog, demarcating where the post-Unicorns haze of 2006's Return to the Sea meets Vapours, or Islands circa right now. The newer stuff sat all right with the audience, particularly the ELO-esque but somehow drug-themed "No You Don't," but the proof was in the pudding -- the audience lost their shit in the best way possible when Diamonds busted out Return to the Sea's highly danceable track "Rough Gem."
The night's technical difficulties continued with Islands. At one point Diamonds remarked to the band's sound guy, "What'd you do up here, man? You're ruining my whole shit." I'm fairly certain I was standing in front of the very amp that was troubling him; for a few songs in the middle of the set I felt like I was watching a poorly dubbed Japanese film.
The problem was solved, however, when I moved away from the overloud amp and Tall Drunk Guy, who stimulated most of the onstage banter coming from Diamonds. TDG heard someone in the audience ask the name of a song Islands had just played (okay, it was me) and shouted, "That song was called awesome!" Diamonds replied, "You're called awesome."
As TDG's amiable drunkenness wore on -- there was also some masturbation humor traded back and forth between him and Diamonds -- Islands' Evan Gordon (bass and keys) piped up, "Hey, this motherfucker was clowning me outside when I was out for a smoke. He was dancing up behind me, making fun of me." Diamonds looked at TDG and said, "Never mind, you're a dud. Duds don't get to raise their hands."
No surprise -- "Swans (Life After Death)," from Return to the Sea, was amazing. Islands brought the song to its breaking point, let it die, then shocked it back to life before sending it to hell more times than I could count. A few ecstatic members of the crowd oscillated between dance-floor calisthenics and spinning around, in keeping with the tide of the song. Despite the equipment hiccups and the drunks, it was a fantastic night.
Vapours Creeper Tender Torture Heartbeat Rough Gem Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone Hushtones EOL No You Don't The Arm Shotgun Vision Switched On Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby Swans (Life After Death)
* A sample of the banter between Munro and the Firebird crowd:
Munro: "Should we go to the Arch?" Crowd: "Yeah ..." "Ehh ..." "Go to the City Museum!" Munro: "Do they have a pool there?" Crowd: "No." "Sort of." Naughty jailbait in the front row: "I have a pool."
** Grossi said after the show that he thought it was probably the worst performance Active Child had ever had, but they seemed to sell quite a few CDs in spite of his opinion.
*** The lack of crowd enthusiasm immediately following the first few notes of "Ceremony" was cause for concern. Shouldn't there be some sort of intro to Joy Division/New Order taught in high schools? Can't we get these young whippersnappers to put down their Urban Outfitters compilations and listen to the good stuff?
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