By: Dennis Cook
Brand New/Manchester Orchestra/The Builders and the Butchers
10.16.09 :: San Jose Events Center Arena :: San Jose, CA
The tightly massed fan-entity in front of the broad Event Center stage, squirming and expanding as the start time for Brand New approached, was like some youth amoeba as viewed from the seats above. The tensed energy of so many people with the need to be every centimeter closer that they could be was felt throughout the hall, their physical closeness echoing a kinship with this band, their music, and one another. And when the group eased atmospherically into "You Won't Know" the whole place seemed to breathe with one pair of lungs as main man Jesse Lacey simmered, "Hey hey hey, Mr. Hangman/ Go get your rope/ Your daughters weren't careful/ I fear that I am a slippery slope." And then with an explosion of emotion, light, and carefully tempered rock fury, we were off.
It's not as if the evening had been light on emotion prior to the headliner's arrival. Brand New had a smartly picked lineup with them on the fall tour surrounding their new album, Daisy (released September 22 on Interscope), which managed to resonate on a similar frequency without stepping on each other's toes sonically. First up were The Builders and the Butchers, who delivered energetic, thick music with a rattling folk foundation. If the Violent Femmes ever took their tongue out of their cheeks they might sound like this. The shifting instrumentation encompassed trumpet, mandolin, banjo, and more traditional electric rock bits, all delivered atop an oversized percussion kit shared by two drummers sitting close to one another, and their handclapping energy and eager audience outreach were vaguely reminiscent of Akron/Family. There's a pleasantly ragged roots churn to The Builders, and when they're belting out boatman chants or banging the strings like a badly abused hammered dulcimer it's pretty hard to resist. Nice first impression to be sure.
The middle slot was held by Atlanta's Manchester Orchestra, who, like Brand New, is very much the descendents of a post-Nirvana world. Rough and prettily melodic, tender and a little mean, contradictions abound but in a very winning, very modern way. Only two albums in, Manchester has the markings of a real thoroughbred and the live experience only built on this impression. They came on like a slow rising wave, a tide coming in with all the tsunami fury hidden beneath gently floating kelp. Again and again, they danced up with a roar and then slipped back with unforced dexterity. The dynamics are bloody exciting and they hold nothing back in their delivery. It doesn't hurt that they can really write memorable tunes full of mood shifts and lyrics that sink hooks in deep. Less skilled musicians might flub these bounces from loud to soft and back again but Manchester Orchestra is so fully engaged and clever that it just works.
| Manchester Orchestra by Janet K|
Manchester's second studio release, Mean Everything To Nothing, has proven one of 2009's sneaky growers, a little better every time you slip it on. As good as the studio work is, there's a nervy, thumping transformation to the songs live, some chemical reaction that releases the howl inside them. There's the whomp of metal married to melodic rock and a lyrical bent that's intellectual and sometimes funny. Most, even those unfamiliar with the band, got caught up in their energy and sang along to swell refrains like, "I have friends in all the right places!" Closer "The River," which also wraps the new album, was truly cathartic, a statement of purpose ("I sing about most everything") surrounded by a moving, beautiful racket punctuated by punchy drums, where the whole of it reminded me of The Who in their vintage glory.
At nearly 42 years of age, I was approximately twice the age (or more) than most of the Brand New fans at this gig. With my semi-unkempt silver mane, I was mistaken for Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis twice, and when my age came up in random conversations it really took people aback. Brand New isn't really a band for dudes like me, guys brought up on classic '70s FM rock, '80s punk, and indie rock's first wave of popularity with R.E.M., Camper Van Beethoven, etc. But, I was so floored by Brand New's performance at last year's Download Festival (see review here) that I needed to dig in further. They reminded me very distinctly of the first time I'd seen Kurt Cobain and company, and I wondered if that sensation was a fluke. In the year between these performances I explored their studio work, particularly the stunning depths of 2006's The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. In broad terms, Brand New is sharp, overwrought, smarter than your average bear, and a good deal more musically serious than most of their peers. Nothing about them is light or fluffy, and while sometimes a bit too clever for their own good, there's no doubting the veracity of their emotions or intentions. So, once more into their fray I descended in San Jose, and while not quite as viscerally devastating as my first encounter, they did give me a great deal of food for thought.
| Brand New by Alexandra Johnson|
Opening with two standouts from The Devil and God was a good move, along with easing into the new material mid-set. Daisy is both harder and softer than its predecessor, though their songwriting, production, and overall playing continues to mature apace. There's a touch more beauty inside all the angst and cogitation now, which further points to a promising future. They don't seem locked into any one thing, despite labels like emo, indie, etc. that have been attached since they started. However, there's a good deal of scream-singing and the general über-intensity can get to be a bit much after a while. In concert, it creates a general state of agitation tempered by well placed soothing intros and spacey breaks. It's not much of a stretch to see both a young Rush fan and a young Green Day fan finding much to love in Brand New.
Seeing their very together live show on a college campus cemented the sense that they've REALLY connected with the young adult set (and the remainder of the audience was largely teenage and equally fervent). Having lived through and thrown myself wholeheartedly into the music and culture of The Clash and Nirvana, I had no problem picking up on a similar fevered relationship in this crowd. It's a powerful thing when one discovers music that seems to be speaking about things that we ourselves lack the words to convey. Combine that with music full of exposed feeling, fearless extravagance, and complex shifts and you've got a mix that makes Brand New one of the band's of their generation. They seem fully aware of the love and expectation surrounding them, and while grateful seem somewhat outside of the mania, where they continue to grow and create music that will likely reflect the personal evolution of their fan base.
Their stage set is simple, a few rear projected films late in the show, but mainly it was an all black stage with boys in black making music bolstered by non-flashy, intelligently crafted lighting. Where one number had sharp lances of white light creating geometric lines around the shadowy figures pummeling their instruments, another was warmed by the amber glow of fake candelabra flames. Each choice was appropriate and helped stir the drama inherent to Brand New's sound.
As mentioned, Jesse Lacey's lead vocals are an acquired taste. Like metal's strep throat rumble, Lacey's screechy spikes and flailing cries can grate if you're not up for them. However, he's really just a gifted singer who is all over the place. He can carry a tune fine and his scream is mighty, but kid also yodels, croons, and even gets a little soulful at times. He's unique but everything about the music and words he's engaging with work with interlocking logic. A love song for Brand New declares, "Take me back to your bed/ I love you so much it hurts my head." Everything about them is a conversation between intimacy and disconnection, claustrophobic closeness and breathy wide-open spaces, and how those aren't necessarily opposites.
Hunched over their instruments, trying to pry loose something more, something that makes the whole goddamn mess make sense, Brand New is a true powerhouse sitting at the center of the generation just matriculating into adulthood. It's likely that we will be talking about them for years to come, and their influence will be one cited by many bands forming in their wake. As modern American society continues to shake with profound changes of nearly every sort, Brand New is a worthy soundtrack to this upheaval that understands something about how human beings survive in such times. And they put on a mighty fine show, too.
Brand New :: 10.16.09 :: San Jose Events Center Arena :: San Jose, CA
You Won't Know, Degausser, Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't, Sic Transit Gloria... Glory Fades, Jaws Theme Swimming, The No Seatbelt Song, Vices,
Gasoline, Sowing Season, You Stole, In A Jar, Luca, Archers, Bought A Bride, Jesus Christ, At The Bottom, Play Crack The Sky
Brand New is on tour now; dates available here.
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