Noise Pop 2012: Cursive @ Great American 2/22/12

As a sort of bandwagon Cursive fan — I’ve only given their 2009 release Mama, I’m Swollen a proper listen — I was a little hesitant reviewing this show. It felt like I was going in blind, especially considering the lineup included three opening bands, all of whom I’d never heard before.

To make matters worse, I was attending by myself. By the end of the show — and my first experience with the cathartic, fist-in-the-air sing alongs Cursive do so well — it felt like I’d been through a potent group therapy session. Things started a little stiff but by the encore Cursive had convinced strangers that rubbing shoulders and singing along was what strangers normally do together. It was actually more awkward to not know the words (my fault) than to belt out the chorus off-key (everyone else).

Up and coming San Francisco locals Taxes opened the show with their straight-forward brand of indie rock, fusing Foo Fighters guitar crunch with electric piano and female back-up vocals. Wearing genuine excitement on their faces, Taxes ran through their quick setlist with refreshing clarity, leaving the echo effects and reverb to the rest of the San Francisco indie scene. Family and friends crowded the front row to encourage the band, while Cursive fans lingered a few steps back, absorbing Taxes’ piecemeal approach to indie rock, as the songs switched quickly between influences — from traces of early Foo Fighters and pop-punk choruses to the spacious electric piano à la New York’s Cymbals Eat Guitars.

Switching it up considerably, Seattle foursome Virgin Islands played a set of strict post-punk music with lockstep bass and drum rhythms and deadpan vocals (see: Joy Division, The Wire). Full band shouts were figured prominently in each chorus, presumably because Virgin Island’s noise rock style doesn’t work well with subtleties of the voice. This is grunt, rant, shout (in that order) music — disenfranchised white male rock powered by the rhythm section. Yes, it’s not the most original sound, but Virgin Island have deferred to some of the post-punk greats for advice and it shows: their songs are tight, concise, and fun to listen to.

Billed to play third, Austin hard rockers Ume proved once again that this year’s Noise Pop festival has no lack of quality female fronted bands. Lead singer Lauren Larson is a sight to behold on stage. Her blonde hair gives her the physical appearance of a southern belle, but her head thrashing dance moves and searing guitar solos are more Janis Joplin than Dolly Parton. Like their Noise Pop female-fronted companions Sleigh Bells, Ume thrive off delicately balancing Larson’s breathy vocals with the band’s penchant for noise, heavy drums, and guitar solos. Unfortunately, the loudness of the set often squeezed the vocals down to a mere whisper forcing us to watch a lot of great things happen without hearing them properly.

By 10:40pm, Cursive took the stage. There were no sound issues but you could tell the crowd was a little weary from watching three solid hours of indie rock. After two songs, Cursive launched into “A Gentleman Caller” from 2003’s Ugly Organ and the crowd came alive. The band seemed especially happy to play older hits (“The Martyr”; “Some Red Handed Slight of Hand”; “I Couldn’t Love You”) all of which induced mini mosh pits from the crowd.

Late in the set, lead singer and guitarist Tim Kasher described his appreciation for Noise Pop, chastising the local audience for being so lucky: “In Nebraska, we don’t have any god damn Noise Pop festivals that happen every year for twenty god damn years.” And on the Great American Music Hall: “One of my favorite places to play on the whole god damn planet.” Mr. Kasher was full of high praise throughout the night, constantly reminding the crowd that he loved us. Obviously, the love went both ways.

As the set ended, an eager fan tossed a bouquet of red roses onstage. Mr. Kasher picked up the rose, waved to the audience, fiddled with his guitar effects and walked off stage pumping his fist. Therapy session completed. See you next year.

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