There was quite a line-in-the-sand last night between First Avenue and 7th Street Entry. In the big room was a stylish, co-ed synth-pop band from the U.K. that tilts the Hipster-o-Meter to overload. In the smaller venue came a long-haired, bearded, straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll band of Southern dudes who look like they’d maybe want to beat up the hipsters. Comparing them would be apples-vs.-oranges. And if it was a competition, you would have to say they both won. The good-ol’-boys won by more, though.
CHVRCHES: The Scottish synth-pop trio had already been to town once before at the Fine Line and managed to sell out First Ave its second time around – which is somewhat staggering given the fact that the band has yet to even release a full-length album (it’s out in two weeks). Chvrches was ready, though, and not just in the musical sense. It’s as if the members already have festival gigs in their sights, the way they offered the total package.
For starters, they have a full-scale light show in tow already, with shadowy backlighting and a glitzy array of symmetrically shaped string lights wrapped around their dueling synthesizer podiums – all told, part “Tron” and part Beach House. This flashy stage set-up added the visual pizzazz that synth-pop bands so desperately need, but Chvrches isn’t lacking in stage presence, either. Frontwoman Lauren Mayberry sort of came off like a more bookwormy, less leggy, brunette Emily Haines the way she danced and shook a tamborine around the center of the stage. Her bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty livened things up when they could, too -- especially Doherty, who made a convincing, surprisingly dramatic turn on lead vocals in the second-to-last song “Under the Table.”
Mayberry is no golden girl in the vocals department, but she’s compelling enough, falling somewhere between Jenny Lewis’s electro-pop purr and the chirpier style of the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan. She struggled to hit the powerful notes of the heavier, darker tune “Science/Vision,” but her charm shined through in softer, poppier tunes such as “Now’s Not the Time” and the crowd favorite “Revolver.” Most charming of all, she flashed a little Scottish wit near the end of the set, too, saying, “It’s so hot in here. It feels like leftover sex from when Prince was here.”
When the band came back out to its encore – just short of an hour-long set -- Mayberry announced that the band would be retiring its cover of “I Would Die 4 U” that night in honor the local legacy. Their version was sexy and sweet enough, though, I saw screw that idea.
J RODDY WALSTON & THE BUSINESS: “This place is a lot better than the Target Center.” So declared Tennessee-bred Jesus-lookalike J Roddy Walston midway through his Entry set. The comment was a nod to his rowdy piano-boogie band’s last time in town, opening for the Lumineers across the street in May – where, he claimed, “Two people there were really into us, and the rest were busy buying $25 beer.”
It seemed like everybody in the Entry on Monday was heavily invested in Walston’s Business. How ironic that the old-school rock band had way more of its crowd dancing – and dancing way more heartily – than did the synth-pop electronic band next door. Fans were singing along verbosely, too, starting with the opening tunes “I Don’t Wanna Hear It” and “Full Growing Man” and reaching a fevered pitch later on in “Don’t Break the Needle.”
Offering hints of Bobby Bare Jr.’s wry Southern-rock wit laced with more anthemic qualities, Walston didn’t need the fans’ help to show off how great a song craftsman he is. That much was obvious when the fans piped down during the songs off the band’s new album ("Essential Tremors," out today!). Among the highlights were the hard-howling “Heavy Bells” and the bluesier, slow-grinding “Midnight Cry.” But Monday’s set was as much a showcase for Walston’s tightly nailed, loose-cannon of a band. The quartet shifted effortlessly (and spiritedly) from Leon Russell-style piano shuffles like “Full Growing Man” into swinging, Big Starry-like pop-rock gems such as “Marigold” to full-blasting rockers -- like the cover of Little Richard’s “Lucille” that found Walston wildly clinging from the rafters over the crowd at one point.
“This is truly one of the best gigs we’ve ever played,” Roddy said near the end. It was seriously one of the best local club gigs of the year, too.