When I review shows, I like to be right up front. I think you can best understand the heart of a live performance when you’re pressed against the stage with the weight of the entire audience bearing down on your ribcage. You get a clear view of what’s happening on-stage, from pedals and guitar-playing to band member interaction. The essence of the show is more understandable when you’re right up in it. For this Los Campesinos! show at Bowery Ballroom on Sunday night, the second of the band’s two shows there, I figured if I arrived about a half hour after the doors opened I’d get my usual up-front reviewing spot. I failed to take into account two important factors. 1. The show was 16 plus. 2. Monday was a holiday, which meant no school the next day. I arrived at 8:30 to find about 100 exuberant high schoolers crowded around the front of the stage, chatting about how excited they were for Los Campesinos! and how many times they’d seen them before, and all the other things that indie teenagers talk about to impress other indie teenagers standing around them at shows. I weasled my way into the crowd and stood there right along with my young counterparts waiting for the show to begin.
Titus Andronicus came on and rip-roared their way through a great opening set. I was kicking myself the entire time for not seeing them in a smaller venue prior to this show. They’re a true up-and-coming punk act, and I just love ’em. Lead singer Patrick Stickles is delightfully quirky. He grumbles good-naturedly into the microphone between songs as the rest of the band gears up for the next two minutes of pure bliss they undoubtedly deliver. The band was incredibly tight and they really sounded great, but gave off the impression that they were flying by the seat of their pants. They had the kids who were there to see Los Campesinos! completely won over and moshing their little hearts out by the end of their set. Titus Andronicus was by far the best thing about the evening.
Titus Andronicus finished up their set, and left the stage to make way for Los Campesinos! After waiting about a half-hour and feeling incredibly out of place, I decided I just couldn’t cut it anymore. I was grumpy and wanted some breathing room. As I defeatedly walked to the back of Bowery Ballroom, the crowd’s age was like a gradient fill on photoshop. I took my place in the back amongst the thirty-somethings.
This experience seemed to be appropriate for the rest of the night’s music. Los Campesinos! are a band that relies heavily on angst and youthful exuberance. Their best songs are all about love and the kinds of existential crises that are life and death at the age of eighteen. Their best chorus goes, “It’s you! It’s me! And we’re dancing!” for goodness sake. Even singers Gareth and Aleksandra tend to sound like whiny children figuring things out about love and life.
Hold On Now Youngster was one of my absolute favorite albums of last year, so I was incredibly excited for this show. As the band came out on stage, they made a formidable silhouette across the proscenium. Six twenty-somethings lined up across the stage, with their drummer tucked into the back. Keyboards, bass, singer, gutiar, guitar, violin. A group of self-assured young people making ecstatic music. It gave the immediate impression of a band with the supreme confidence to make it one of the best shows all those 16 plusses in the front had ever seen. Their music also has the ironic subtlety to appeal to everyone in the audience, and I was looking forward to it, even standing in the back.
Unfortunately, Los Campesinos! didn’t quite deliver. Instead of relying on the playful exuberance of their music, they allowed something else to shine through. Their confidence ended up coming off as cockiness. They put energy into the show, but they didn’t seem to really believe in their lyrics. As the New York Times review of this show recently discussed, lead-singer Gareth put a lot of the focus on himself. Or maybe the rest of the band wasn’t attempting to act as a unit like I assumed they would. One of the outstanding elements of Los Campesinos! are the stunning guitar tones that give their albums a unique sound. The guitar wasn’t shining through in the Bowery Ballroom’s mix or in the performance nearly enough. Keyboardist Aleksandra’s half of the vocals perfectly balance out Gareth’s warble, and add the male/female angst that drives much of their music’s spirit. Instead of sounding strong and confident as she does on the album, she sounded airy and secondary. I wanted them to present the same essence musically that their formidable six-person silhouette gave across the stage when they first came on. They couldn’t deliver on this, and it really hurt the overall feeling of the performance.
The high point of the show was “Miserabilia,” off of their new album, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. For the ending chorus of “Shout at the world because the world doesn’t love you,” everyone put down their instruments and screamed together as a band at the top of their lungs. It was powerful, exciting, and it worked. That was the sense I wanted the band to give off for the entire show. The sense that we’re all very young, we’re trying to figure things out in a world that doesn’t make too much sense, and we’re just going to dance and scream because that’s all we can really do. That’s a message that everyone can relate to, not just those sixteen plusses in the front. Los Campesinos! should have had the power to unite the entire audience, despite their age. Instead, I just felt like I was standing in the back of the Bowery Ballroom listening to a band with truly great songs that weren’t quite delivering on this particular night. It’s the middle of a long tour. I’ll leave it at that.
Parts of this review were originally posted on BreakThru Radio.