Lifestyle Communities Pavilion, Columbus, OH – October 7, 2015
So what do roadies actually do, pre-set, at a Chvrches concert? I mean, can you physically tune a keyboard or a drum machine? Is there really anything one can do to prime a sampler for its big moment on stage, besides, I suppose, making sure it’s plugged in? I understand the legitimate need to test the three microphones, one for each band member, but that single loose end was inexplicably left dangling. Otherwise, it’s just a procession of reed-thin dudes wandering around, pausing occasionally mid-amble to disinterestedly look at something obscure in one equipment bank or other, or on the floor, or at the back of the pavilion, before resuming their strolls. In fact, what I initially mistook for a trio of stagehands, I soon became convinced was actually just the same guy, crossing the stage again and again in rapid, desperate, succession, apparently competing against himself to stand out from a crowd of one. Was he just there for show, I wondered, to convince the audience that, somehow, important preparatory stuff was going on up there and we weren’t simply playing a waiting game? Why did some songs being played over the P.A. seem appreciably louder, or otherwise more pointed, than their peers? It felt like I was hearing an actual introductory song – the kind with which Clutch, for example, swaggeringly plays itself onto stage – at least three times. I found myself sorely mistaken on each occasion. Bored and antsy, I pondered these and other mysteries of the universe during the ample downtime separating the set of touchy-feely in extremis opener Mansionair from Chvrches’ headlining turn. At one point, the interstitial music even stopped altogether, and stayed that way for a stretch of some five minutes, which you would think might surely indicate something was about to happen. Then it just started up again and the status quo was restored. What exactly was I missing here? What was going on?
My concertgoing career in earnest has now lasted well over twenty years, and encompassed everything from hip hop to death metal, indie rock to classic rock, classical to grindcore, punk to reggae to jam bands, extreme easy listening to, let’s just say, the diametric opposite of the spectrum. Yet here I was, at what I figure had to be my first synthpop concert ever, improbably a stranger in a strange land, and going it alone to boot. With both stealth and speed, the near-capacity crowd of indie kids and urban outfitters filled in the empty spaces behind me to the point that I was essentially walled into place, then started co-opting the spots in front too. I’ve stood my ground solo in dozens of different arenas over the years, of course, including at this one on too many occasions to count. It’s at best a minor annoyance, and then only because I just want the frigging show to start already. In that feeling, I trust I’m never alone. Accordingly, when Chvrches, without ceremony, finally assumed the stage and launched into the pulsating “Never Ending Circles”, a song whose arresting signature musical pirouettes are also the first sounds to be heard on the band’s marvelous new sophomore album Every Open Eye, the crowd’s sigh of relief turned into an affirming and spontaneous roar. Singer Lauren Mayberry, flanked on either side by banks of theoretically playable electronics and bandmates that stared at them intently as they bobbed to the music, was in complete command of both song and stage from the onset. Her voice can seem a slight variation on those of the female singers currently proliferating in alternative and indie rock, in that it sounds a bit tangibly sweeter without sacrificing an ounce of muscularity or impact. Mayberry was in immediate, magnificent throat as her band began by alternating songs from its two albums, with “Circles” segueing into the sinister “We Sink”, then the headlong “Keep you on my Side”, and, finally, early highlight “Lies”, whose intricately-layered sounds on album were lost somewhat beneath the insistent thump of its drums and fuzzy bass drone. As is so often the case in rock and roll – and despite its synthpop trappings, Chvrches still can rock with the best of them – the low end not only triumphed but transcended.
*The best of whom, of course, include Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and The Kills/Dead Weather’s Alison Mosshart, in addition to established and/or rising bands like St. Vincent, Wolf Alice, Speedy Ortiz, and Metric, and O.G. marvels like Neko Case and Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker. It’s such a good time to be a fan of this kind of singer/band dynamic.
Even by purely objective standards, Lauren Mayberry is a wee Scottish lass. Seen from any distance at all, she appears, at best, four and a half feet tall, the kind of diminutive figure that can be (and was) swallowed up from view entirely by, say, the protruding left ear of the fifth-tallest guy standing in front of you. She is also the effortlessly charming, disarmingly confident, increasingly fierce frontwoman of what has, perhaps improbably (until you dig deep into the songs), become one of a handful of the very best alternative bands working today. That ferocity appears at odds with the mousy, unassuming figure she cuts otherwise**, and at times seems like an affect, though, at others, it feels exactly like Mayberry is organically coming into her own as not just a singer but a performer. I remember being pleasantly surprised, during a performance on The Tonight Show of Eye’s lead single, “Leave a Trace”, when, after four bars of landlocked singing, she suddenly began stalking the stage left to right and back again, gesticulating and noticeably gaining in vocal urgency. I’d sadly missed Chvrches’ previous trip to Columbus, despite being in puppy dog love with its seminal debut album, The Bones of What You Believe, and most every video clip I’d viewed of the band up to this point came from a simpler time and consisted of Mayberry generally rooted to one spot, singing her precise and cutting lyrics in a manner simultaneously passionate but controlled, as if she was actively engaged with keeping an evil spirit within her bottled up. Her noticeable uptick in intensity and stagecraft since then mirrors the band’s similar progression between albums, producing music that is appreciably more polished but still just as involving and immediate as the debut.
**And is she ever a goofy, amiable chatterbox in between songs. “No, we are not from your country. We are from a place called Scotland, where all we eat is haggis. Haggis is a mystical creature from the hills.” Compared to Mayberry’s later digressions, which seemed to flow faster as she relaxed and bounced further afield as the night progressed, that was practically a pre-written line of dialogue. Her attitude proved as infectious as her music. Good luck understanding much of her stage banter, though, with all the oblivious, full-volume conversation and random hooting going on around me. I know I caught something about a bad haircut she got before the aforementioned Fallon appearance. (“It wasn’t that bad,” a bandmate helpfully non-assured her.) The less informed of us in the audience later found out it was her birthday. “What am I going to do for my birthday?” she asked, imitating a well-wisher. “Play on stage for nice people. Yep.”
As updated synthpop from the Depeche Mode/New Order school, Chvrches was a reasonably high bar for me to clear at first, though its songwriting ability, nimble, clever musicality, and alternately piercing and soaring vocals made an immediate impression. Part of what helped soothe my transition over from the predominantly guitar-based clatter I normally favor was that the album just sounded so good bumping through even an average car stereo like mine. The Bones of What you Believe became an inescapable feature of the many road trips I’d take not only in its release year of 2013 but half of the next year as well, and remains a reliable weapon I deploy in those car-bound moments I want something undeniably high quality but a little different. Even after limited spins, Every Open Eye, released (as of this writing) just last week, one-ups its predecessor in the professionalism department – which seems like good news coupled with faint praise for what was, after all, my fifth favorite album of 2013, until one reflects that was probably the only clear area of improvement available. In 2015, Chvrches is no longer merely ascendant, it has officially arrived, and the proof of that happy fact was in the vanilla pudding that coated nearly every nook and cranny of the L.C. Pavilion. Flimsy-looking flannel shirts and hipster beards abounded – adding to the distinct feeling that, despite my fandom, I was on the visiting team here – and almost every varietal of girlfriend I noticed looked like she had come off of the assembly line at a plant that manufactures what writer Nathan Rabin once memorably called the “manic pixie dream girl”. Already slightly challenging to pick out from my vantage point in the first third of the non-pit lower level, Mayberry steadily receded from my view as the night wore on, replaced by a procession, or, more rightly, a clump, of heads, presumably attached to incredibly tall bodies, situated directly in the path between my eyes and center stage.
Soon enough, stages right and left were similarly obscured, as, at a point about four songs in, the 6’5” Winklevoss twins from The Social Network materialized, unannounced and beyond ready to party, right in front of me. With its insistent beats and simultaneously catchy and busy aural mosaics, Chvrches produces luxury-quality head-bobbing music with a decided, slightly uncomfortable, dance club sheen to it. In this sea of Columbus’ best and whitest, heads bobbed and hands dutifully raised and swayed in response, but no one in the entire Pavilion was remotely the slave to this music that was Tyler Winklevoss, who, in his luddite enormity, comprehensively blocked my view of the stage, and, if it’d been an outdoor show, probably would’ve the horizon itself.*** Tyler treated the concert like a one-man rave, alternating dancing expertly/creepily in place, hands aloft, with pogoing like an Olympic high jumper during warm-ups. All that was missing was the GloStix, not that they would’ve even added significantly to the distraction of a six foot-plus Abercrombie & Fitch utility model dancing like nobody anywhere, in the history of the world, was watching. At least he was into the music. I decided, with limited but measurable success, to put this hedonistic obstruction, his (frat) brother from another mother, and their occasional, careening invasions of personal space – not to mention the chuckleheads beside me who repeatedly spilled beer on my leg or the goof behind me singing along with Mayberry in a demonstrably gross, though, I think, sincere, monotone – out of my head and attempt to enjoy the show on its own merits…which was easy enough. They were considerable.
***I keep calling him Tyler Winklevoss, but this is obviously cheap, sarcastic license on my part. It may well just as easily have been Cameron. I can’t tell them apart.
It’s rare to find a show anymore that pays the proper attention to spectacle, set structure, and momentum, but Chvrches delivered on all counts. The band played silhouetted against an impressive, multi-stage backdrop, which was comprised of three floor-to-ceiling video screens with banks of spotlights behind and in between them, bound together by horizontal belts of LED lights arranged like the slats on a pasture fence. On songs like Bones’ “Recover” or Eye’s “Clearest Blue”, or on “Science/Visions”, a track I sometimes feel is too tightly wound on album but that became an explosive and dramatic centerpiece on stage, the contrast and interplay among the visual elements added up to a consistently impressive, occasionally jaw-dropping whole, not unlike a smaller scale version of the light and video extravaganzas with which nine inch nails used to routinely overwhelm its live audiences. Though the synthesizer/singer/synthesizer instrumentation format was adhered to for the majority of the show, Mayberry also added cloud-bursting electronic drum accents to Eye’s “Playing Dead”, and ace songwriter Iain Cook played throbbing bass on four songs from the debut. As is his wont, Martin Doherty took a turn on the mic for a version of “Under the Tide” that at least sounded better live than it does on The Bones of What you Believe (I much prefer Doherty’s more recent star-turn on Eye’s “High Enough to Carry you Over”, a song so surprisingly strong that I don’t even mind it’s not Mayberry singing), and that album’s biggest songs – the searing “Recover”, the frazzled “Gun”, earworm original single turned encore “The Mother we Share” – predictably brought the house down. I admit I grew a bit weary of certain aforementioned elements of Columbus’ landed aristocracy the longer I remained in their midst, but Chvrches, with its ability to add edge to elegant music and to make blue collar work ethic taste like caviar, made every hitch in the road perfectly worthwhile. I hope they come back to visit us the day Lauren Mayberry turns 28.