Cold War Kids, Elliot Moss, the Vanity House of Blues March 5, 2015
It's been nearly ten years since Long Beach's Cold War Kids took the indie-rock world by storm with their debut LP, Robbers & Cowards, but their fans have not forgotten it. With its soulful sensibility and soaring singalongs, that album felt like a breath of fresh air back in 2006, and vaulted the Kids on to the playlists of even the most casual indie-types.
What a lot of those casual fans might not know is that the band that recorded Robbers & Cowards is more or less gone. The group that showed up to headline a crowded show at House of Blues on Thursday night is essentially brand-new, with front man Nathan Willett and bassist Matt Maust the only holdovers from the band's early success. As perhaps even their most ardent supporters might admit in 2015, consistency has never quite been the Cold War Kids' strong suit.
Before the audience could find out if this latest version of the band could recapture the excitement of 2006, however, there were the opening acts to contend with. First up was Austin's the Vanity, who showed off a driving, highly polished rock sound that called to mind Rick Springfield jamming with Sunny Day Real Estate. Their tunes were tight and professionally crafted, warming up the crowd nicely with their pleasant kineticism.
Things slowed down considerably next for Elliot Moss, the young songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from New York. Moss brought a full five-piece band with him on the road, and each musician had a vast array of knobs, switches and dials to dither with. The extensive electronics were used to deploy huge sheets of dreamy bass and gentle hip-hop beats, creating an oddly animatronic backdrop for Moss' smooth R&B vocals.
For fans waiting to rock along to CWK's patented rave-ups, Moss' music appeared a tad too cool and remote. Instrument-switching aside, his band did not prove a terrific fit with the headliners. As Moss and Co. tapped out gentle tunes that sounded a bit like Sade covering a few of Radiohead's more esoteric numbers, folks in the audience pulled out their phones and struck up conversations. The energy that had been building all night began to sag. The Cold War Kids would have their work cut out for them reviving it.
The audience perked right up at the first key struck on Willet's piano. As the tambourine started to shake on "All This Could Be Yours," the lead single from last year's Hold My Home, the crowd began to wake up, clapping and bobbing about in front of the stage.
Though many of the Cold War Kids onstage were making their first trip to Houston, a couple of important elements in the band's sound have remained intact over the years. Maust's bass lines still wiggle and throb in the air, breathing potent life into the group's simple grooves, and Willet's dynamic voice still rings out ecstatically, injecting a life-saving dose of soul into the music. The new guys, for their part, fit in well, delivering seamless and energetic performances of songs old and new.
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Fans were loving CWK's pumped-up live renditions of tracks like "Miracle Mile" and "We Used to Vacation," but their interest waned a bit during a couple of somber numbers in the middle of the set, including the spare, bluesy "Harold Bloom." Willet is a very talented performer, but not quite charismatic enough to spellbind a Thursday-night audience with just a piano and his voice.
Instead, Cold War Kids were undoubtedly at their best when the drums were pounding. As the new song "Drive Desperate" began a home stretch that contained all of the high-energy revival and resolution that the band's fans crave from them, it was obvious that, when fully revved, Cold War Kids remain a formidable live force. For the most part, the new material fit comfortably alongside the old all night, and the new guys played with the required passion.
Who knows? There may be more lineup changes to come for the band. But as long as the bass throbs and those piano strings hold up, Cold War Kids will remain worthy of attention.
Personal Bias: Firmly within target demo.
The Crowd: Good looking. Rapturous for the upbeat stuff, chatty for the slower stuff.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I've heard church bands rock harder."
Random Notebook Dump: It was totally "date night" at House of Blues on Thursday.
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