I show up and the doorman is the nicest I’ve ever encountered. I’d never been to Webster Hall before surprisingly, so I’m a little confused about where to enter. He unhooked the red velvet rope for me and said I had my own entrance; I could get used to Manhattan decorum! …Or maybe it’s the new dress. I enter the concert hall and it’s packed. A haze of smoke drifts above the crowd and it’s hard to tell if it sprung from them or if the venue is purposefully papering us in vapor. Nope, smoke machine spotted in the balcony – either way, it works.
Due to a serious of unfortunate events that include the lack of F & G service to south Brooklyn this weekend, I miss Diamond Rings. I’ve had bad luck with transport lately.
They’re setting up the stage for Stars, though, who were another early-college-idol-band for me that I’ve never seen live. The set list you ask? What can one say about a set list that seamlessly blends every old heart-knocking ballad with the new set of sparkling knife-like songs just released on their latest record The North? It was a knock-out. The show was more beautiful and regal than Lady Liberty herself, and as these songs went back to the beginning of college for me, it felt historic too.
Amy Millan, the female half of the vocal propeller that is Stars, wears a silver sparkled shift dress, channeling the brightness of a star herself. This girl can work the stage with a confidence and freedom one rarely sees in performs at all, much less a woman who looks, well, like a normal fucking woman. I love her all the more upon sight. The male half of Stars, Torquil Campbell, wears a preppy Hamptons style suit of all light beigey gray, as if to mock the ideal of New York menswear with its very simplicity and anonymity.
“We lived in New York City too, so we’re Stars from New York!” he shouted triumphantly to introduce them. The loads of hipsters, who weren’t quite hip enough to go to ATP instead, eat this up.
The opener for this sort of homecoming show, then, could be nothing other than the glistening first track off their new album The Theory of Relativity. This song is a perfect pop song, like the kind they used to make before pop started to eat itself with overt sexuality or latent stupidity. I’m delighted to hear Campbell’s voice has that same ethereal elasticity live, putting to rest any doubts of auto-tune or recording fix-ups listeners might have secretly nursed. Millan’s voice on this song is enhanced with extra echo effects, this mixed with the neon, then red spotlights set at changed angles behind them introduce the show perfectly.
It only gets better from here on out, except, of course, my occasional annoyances with the drunk girls to my right, and even more so to my left. They elbow me and glare when I pull my phone out to type my emotional notes and record the set list. So goes the life of a journalist, I suppose.
I notice that the drums are loud in the mix for the live renditions of these songs, thank God too, because gossamer vocals nestled in a bed of synths and stringy guitar need some staccato to contrast all that haziness.
They play another song off the new record , possibly my favorite one, “A Song Is A Weapon,” back to back with an early Set Yourself On Fire hit “Ageless Beauty.” They dedicate “Ageless Beauty” to someone in the crowd that night who has been to 22 of their shows. It’s cool to think of all the different ways music hits people – I’m seeing Stars for the first time right alongside someone who has seen them over 20 times. And even though the girl to my left is dancing up on me like this is a Snoop Dogg (lion) concert and the girl to my right has decided to take a video of the entire show on her iPhone (but iOS 6?), I feel a spark. This band was a slow burner, but they seem to have finally reached inferno status.
“I remember when I had medically diagnosable anxiety if I ever left the island of Manhattan. you know what I’m talking about,” Campbell jokes, adding his own ironic punch-line, “Then I spent seven years here feeling like shit and the four days I leave everything good happens.” This, in reference to the Canadian band’s stint in New York and eventual success when they left the Big Apple to head back to Canada.
After name checking Canada, they have to play The North which is a crystal clear ode to Canada. Campbell plays some sort of keyboard flute that sounds more brass than anything, I had never seen anything like it, which really doesn’t mean that much. I’m not super well-versed on obscure instruments. But it was definitely bad ass.
Oddly enough, they announce that they’re playing another set that same night beginning at 12:45 a.m. at Mercury Lounge. That feels insane, firstly, because I’m exhausted just from watching them, and secondly, because just what? Bizarre. Canadians, eh? Both shows, by the way, were 100% sold out.
They still seamlessly beam their set list for this show into the crowd like they’re reading our minds; like they already know what we want. Another new one, “Through The Mines,” melts into “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” which is probably the best song they’ve ever written. Its creaky attic organs mixed with some intimate reflections on a breakup have wormed their way into hearts even more jaded than yours. It also contains my favorite Stars line ever, “This scar is a fleck on my porcelain skin” which seems like the most fitting way ever verbalized to describe a lost love.
As a fan of poetry and music, I’ve always been drawn to the darkness that surrounds artists, the intensity and passion that almost must accompany anything worthwhile. So the pseudo-violence in “Do You Want to Die Together,” another new song from The North, immediately drew me in when listening to the album. Backed with the stars twinkling and ominous red lights in a live setting, the song took us to the best parts of hell and the scariest parts of heaven.
Things got kinda weird a little bit later. Campbell starts chanting, “Do not fuck this one up” over and over, which ok, is fair enough, but then asks us, total deadpan “Are you the 47%? I think you are the 47%. “ The crowd confusedly cheers because that’s what you do when a band you like makes a political statement, but we’re half sure that’s an insult right? (Because Romney said it so it must be BAD.) Anyway, that was a weird part.
They played some older songs that didn’t have much meaning for me, and also caused me to notice that their new album really does have more tightness as far as songwriting in comparison to their older songs. It sounds shinier, but not in a bad way, not in a plastic wrap or tinfoil way, but like an old copper vessel that was finally polished.
When they play “Midnight Coward,” one of the only ones they do off of In Our Bedroom After The War, I kind of lose it. This song is so stocked with portents, symbols and signs it feels like a deck of tarot cards. Other things happened after this song, including, of all things, an encore!
If you’re reading this, though, and you want to take away anything from this show or show review, please go back and listen to Set Yourself On Fire and In Our Bedroom After The War. You will never regret this decision. Though their new album sounds polished, isn’t it sometimes better to get things with a bit of grime on them?