Islands, Steel Phantom, Active Child Mango's July 5, 2010
Mango's is a terrible venue, and it made a picture-perfect setting for Islands' sticky and infectiously energetic set last night. Shitty acoustics, views obstructed by support beams, fans sitting on the floor, and cramped quarters despite a somewhat modest crowd gave the show the feel of a house party in some dude's basement rec room (not that Houston's water table is high enough for basement rec-rooms).
Once Aftermath was ushered into the relative oasis of Mango's after waiting 45 minutes in a tiny parking lot on Westheimer for the opening act to sound-check, it wasn't long before Steel Phantoms launched into a set propelled by herky-jerky rhythms, interesting vocal tradeoffs between front man Yos Munro and Islands drummer Aaron Harris, and a general sense of impending chaos. It was like channeling low-rent Modern Lovers through post-punk revivalist shades, and the crowd dug it.
Aftermath knows we shouldn't allow ourselves to be swayed by such silly predispositions, but as soon as Active Child began setting up, we were filled with misgivings. We'll admit it, it was the small harp that made us roll our eyes, and we feel kinda bad about that. Our fears were not entirely unfounded, though - the harp proved to be a somewhat silly accoutrement in the confines of Mango's, sounding no different than a similarly played keyboard part as it bounced off of the hard, close-in surfaces.
Perhaps Pat Grossi's boys-choir voice and lush harping make sense in more rarified air, but the gentle combination seemed a bit lost here. When Grossi stepped away from the harp and allowed himself to wallow in the affected atmospherics of a supremely catchy '80s (non) cover band, things fared much better. Bass-driven groove and angular guitar and keyboard lines commingled with Grossi's high tenor to create something striking and unique. The crowd ate it up; we remain somewhat unconvinced.
Throughout much of the two openers' sets, Nick Thorburn sat behind the merch table, chatted occasionally with fans, and drifted out onto Mango's patio. Subdued would be a good word, but perhaps low-key is more in the spirit of the thing. When Islands mounted the stage, Thorburn was nowhere to be seen.
HIs transformation into Nick Diamonds was complete, from the rhinestone-studded spandex sleeves to the sunglasses and hoodie shroud framing Islands' front man as he launched into an amped-up "Vapours." Diamonds played the part well, working his way into the crowd, enveloping himself in the body of his audience like a priest donning sacramental robes.
The people were all for it, thrilled to have the man in their midst. Riding on the energy of its entrance, Islands stepped out a bit, choosing "Creeper" as the only Arm's Way cut to surface the entire evening. The song's rhythmic punch worked well with the worked-up crowd, and was met with a hearty "fuck yeah!" "Fuck Yeah! Right back at you, Houston," parried Diamonds, meaning it.
The rest of the set flitted predictably between Return to the Sea and Vapours cuts, with a couple of new songs thrown in for good measure. The first of these featured somber lyrics and a soaring, vaguely anthemic landscape, perhaps a harbinger of the "bummer record" Thorburn promised in our interview from last week's print edition.
The latter (We'll call it "Shotgun Vision") was tense, skittering along to a fractured martial beat. The whole thing felt schizophrenic, claustrophobic, and paranoid. It was a striking departure from the upbeat, fan-friendly singalong vibe carried for the balance of the show. It was also extremely effective.
The never-ending crescendo that is "Swans (Life After Death)" carried the band to the end of its main set, and provided quite a send-off. Extending the intro into a frothy crest of excitement, the song kicked to a wash of cymbal, and the whole audience swooned as one, as if experiencing for the first time the catharsis this song must have represented to Diamonds in the wake of The Unicorns' demise, and just as fully as if it were their own life-affirming statement.
All stops were pulled, as the band milked the positivity and turned it into pure rock furor, just to prove that it can do much more than write pretty party songs. Diamonds milked feedback from his guitar, Aaron Harris beat everything in his kit at once, keeping the rhythm even while riding roughshod over it; the rest of the band thrashed and howled.
Near the seven-minute mark, the song's volta descended into waves of noise interspersed with franticly voiced riffs, as Diamonds settled his guitar into a feedback loop and the band left the audience breathless. Of course, it was a scant 30 seconds before the band returned to cap the night with an echo-drenched "Switched On," as Diamonds sang from the interior of his T-shirt, wrapping himself in microphone cords.
Critic's Bias: We listened to Vapours every day for three months when it first came out. Our six-year-old can sing every track.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I'll take your ironic photo now. Show me your best hipster pose."
"We're in Texas, motherfucker, I want a Lone Star!" - Nick Diamonds, jovially addressing the fan who brought him a Stella.
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The Crowd: Surprisingly small, endlessly enthusiastic, young enough to make our 28 years feel really, really old.
Random Notebook Dump: After the show, Anthony "Fat Tony" Obi tried to school Thorburn and some well wishers in a rousing game of Uno. Apparently, the rules were just too dogmatic for Thorburn's liking.
Vapours Creeper Disarming the Car Bomb Tender Torture Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone New Song, untitled Rough Gem Heartbeat No You Don't New Song ("Shotgun Vision"?) Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby Swans (Life After Death) Switched On