“Let’s leave before the headliner,” an obnoxious, predictably male voice materialized from somewhere amidst the haze of the smoke-filled patio at the Bottom of the Hill. I shouldn’t have been there: I quit smoking weeks (okay, days) ago. It smelled like cheap cigarettes and cheaper perfume, it was irritatingly chilly as only the City by the Bay can be, but inside was unbearably hot and the smell of nicotine always helps me concentrate as I scribbled away at some barely comprehensible notes. Plus, I wanted to hear the guy finish his sentence: “That’s, like, the most hipster thing you can do, right?” He didn’t disappoint. I know he was being facetious and the overwhelming obnoxiousness was, no doubt, exacerbated by excessive alcoholic consumption, but, still, I found myself fighting the urge to yell, “Stop being so detached and ironic for just one evening, you’re giving my generation an even worse name than it already has!”
Now, why I decided to project all my perceived notions of generational inadequacy onto this anonymous, faceless man who was ostensibly just trying to elicit a few chuckles from his friends (I guess the bar for friendship has been lowered over the years) requires a much deeper psychological analysis than I’m prepared to delve into right now. I suppose I was just a little cranky over the fact that the topic of conversation wasn’t, “Gee, weren’t those bands we just saw great?” but rather, “Let’s trash the worst aspects of a subculture that, while rightly deserving of condescension, at least represents a more concrete identity than your typical jaded and frustrated millennial so uncomfortable in their own skin they retreat into crass cynicism any chance they get.”
I’ve spent too much attention on this dork when it should be spent on Scary Little Friends, my favorite band on a bill loaded with talent. While headliners Boy & Bear exuded effortless cool and the second act Wildlife grabbed your attention with vibrant energy and rambunctious stage antics, Scary Little Friends charmed with graceful restraint. They’re a band containing the prime element that makes a similar group like Wilco so great: you can tell immediately that each member harbors the skill and chops to easily steal the spotlight, but each chooses subtlety over showmanship to benefit the individual song. The whole is, indeed, greater than the sun of its parts, SLF seems to be arguing.
Make no mistake, the band can and did cut loose at times, with solos from guitarist Chris Jones and their keyboardist for the evening (a position that seems to vary from show to show) particularly scintillating, powerful enough to rouse even the half-interested, wait-until-I-get-three-more-drinks-in-me-before-I-display-any-enthusiasm audience that typifies the ‘early’ crowd at so many shows. And while bassist Jon Payne and drummer Charlie Knote didn’t get the chance to fully display the depths of their abilities onstage, their steadfast commitment to the groove exemplified a sense of refined professionalism found only in the best musicians.
While I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time on SLF’s performance, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the other two bands as well. Wildlife, with their aforementioned vitality and sweeping sonic soundscapes reminiscent of early U2, were an adrenaline rush fueled by driving beats, huge four-part vocal arrangements and sing-along choruses. Boy & Bear, the band this sold-out crowd was clearly waiting all night for, were very much worthy of such attention, but they lacked both the raw force of Wildlife and the musical versatility of Scary Little Friends. They were professional, looked great on stage, and didn’t miss a beat or note…but still there was something missing, something intangible, something that can’t be adequately explained by any music theorist or pop culture critic. Boy & Bear deserve to be a headlining act, and I can understand their widespread appeal, but they just didn’t grip me in the same way that the emotional angst in Chris Jones’ voice and lyrics did. The best live bands display a sense of authenticity on stage, bridging the gap between listener and performer with a personal connection even if it may be, in actuality, merely perceived. I believe SLF bridged that gap solely with the power of their music, without the help of stage theatrics or a built-in fanbase that would’ve approved no matter how they sounded.
You really shouldn’t leave a show before the headliner plays, that much I’m in agreement with that disembodied drunken voice. But sometimes an opener can be the highlight of the night.