Perhaps the point Charlotte Aitchison was trying to make at the Fox Theater in Oakland Thursday evening was one of irony–-combining grrl power anthems with faux pole dancing and flashing of the lower half variety (she was covered). If so, the message was muddled. Perhaps the singer-songwriter/diva-in-training known as Charli XCX was just trying to make too big a leap on her biggest American tour – her previous San Francisco gig was at the several-hundred-capacity Slim’s – and she’s not yet ready to be Britney Spears. Or perhaps, when paired with Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers, with its high production value stage show and theatrics, she simply failed to match the former act’s energy.
The co-headlining national jaunt, dubbed Charli and Jack Do America, was still in its infancy Thursday. However, compared to Antonoff’s performance style of “EVERY SONG IS THE MOST IMPORTANT SONG TO WHICH YOU’RE NOW LISTENING” (I’ll get to that in a moment), Charli seemed a bit disinterested, as though she was going through the motions. After the curtain (a giant middle finger) dropped, Aitchison took the stage with her three-member all-female band in front of an LED-encrusted speaker stack, with a giant blow-up heart as the main set piece, and launched into “Sucker,” the title track on her current album. The nearly sell-out crowd greatly approved, especially when it came to the chorus. It was a strong entry, performance, and audience interaction – one that was never matched again – despite Aitchison’s frequent, growingly frustrated requests that the crowd get its hands up in the air.
Sucker is a fantastic album, start-to-finish, with its many tongue-in-cheek critiques on life as a woman. Charli XCX played the majority of those songs Thursday. Sonically, the songs sounded well, despite the occasional signs that the band was using more help than the typical backing tracks. “Body of My Own,” set closer “Boom Clap,” the youth rebellion “Break the Rules,” and “London Queen,” sounded as well live as they do on record. It’s difficult to pin down, then, what was off. Perhaps one symptom of the overall letdown was Aitchison’s refusal to remove her sunglasses until four-fifths of the way through her set. While plenty was laid bare, her emotion was not.
Bleachers preceded Charli XCX, and Antonoff’s crew, which included two drummers, arrived with a full sense of bravado. This band only has one album to its name so far (they performed one song of an upcoming album) but Antonoff has been around for 15 years, with Steel Train, and much better known recently, fun. In other words, he’s no spring chicken and knows that music fans love big riffs, big choruses, big solos, and plenty of stage props from which to leap. The band’s stage design (literally) mirrored that of Queen’s heyday, with numerous arrays of LED lightbulbs and chrome paneling that kicked the light around the stage and into the audience.
There were no major surprises in Bleachers’ set list from Antonoff’s previous Bay Area performances at 2014’s Live 105 BFD and Outside Lands, and more recent gigs at the Independent and the Fillmore. There was the obvious set closer “I Wanna Get Better,” mid-set audience pleaser “Rollercoaster” and a handful of others from debut album Strange Desire. A cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” (which the band alternates with several others) was a show highlight, as was the encore opener, an acoustic cover of Kanye West’s “Only One,” though many in the audience probably didn’t make the connection. But the Bleachers live show is about the delivery – anthemic, grand, in-your-face – and the crowd reciprocated Antonoff’s repeated praise.
Michigan singer-songwriter BØRNS (Garrett Borns) opened the show with a short but terrific set that, despite lacking any significant production firepower, was equally up to the task of making oneself dance, or at least, bob one’s head up and down. You may have already become a fan of single “Electric Love,” what with the omnipotence of the Hulu commercial making the rounds. But on the strength of BØRNS’ other material, he and his band are definitely an act to catch the next time they’re in town.