CHVRCHES (photo: Sara Uduwela)
Lauren Mayberry is constantly at risk of having her music drowned out by the uproar over her opinions. She’s a vocal critic of the way women are treated in the music industry, yet attracts incoherent derision as a woman in the music industry for doing so. She’s constantly having to defend well-informed beliefs while watching them elicit perfunctory thinkpieces aligning themselves to or against her without really understanding that she isn’t saying anything that should be controversial. All she wants is for her success to be acknowledged rather than explained — her efforts to be validated to the same extent as her male counterparts. Mayberry has become a visible figure in the ongoing discussion on gender injustice; a role she completely owns and is using to make substantial strides forward. Yet it would be foolish to have that conversation replace the statement CHVRCHES are already making through their role in the contemporary music industry.
A number of promising signs have emerged in the past few years that give hope for the long-standing tradition of marginalizing female performers on music festival lineups to finally crumble. Among the early frontrunners of the future of women-fronted headliners stand acts such as HAIM and Grimes: artists with the indie sensibilities that are rewarded with underground credibility and the universally gratifying songwriting that is accepted by the mainstream. CHVRCHES, the Mayberry-fronted synth-pop enterprise rounded out by Martin Doherty and Iain Cook, are the most prominent band leading this pack.
I’m not sure how well the trio would take to the notion that their band headlining Coachella or Outside Lands would be a significant accomplishment for the cultural landscape — especially given Mayberry’s reasonable claim that CHVRCHES shouldn’t be defined by the one woman standing in the center — but it’s important for a few reasons: 1) Women are and have always been making equally exciting music relative to their male counterparts, yet are rarely represented even as backing musicians on the main stage, 2) CHVRCHES are writing songs more fresh and relevant than The Black Keys, Kings of Leon, or any other stock festival topper that rotates the summer circuits from year to year, and 3) CHVRCHES are an absolutely unstoppable live force that would completely decimate a headliner slot.
Last night at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CHVRCHES proved their worth as a vital ensemble ready for ubiquity. Not only does the band have two very solid, very stacked albums behind them, but they’ve also honed their live show into a well-contained world of bright lights and unflinching anthems — an hour and a half endorphin-race that is stimulating on both an external and emotional level. CHVRCHES are powerful performers — complete pros that have the practice of summoning hype down to a science.
Walking on stage draped in all black (save for Mayberry’s white sequin skirt), the trio blasted the energy in the room to the ceiling with opener “Never Ending Circles” off their most recent album Every Open Eye, and the excitement never gave an inch during the rest of their 90-minute set. Doherty and Cook form a tight unit, expertly moving from one sturdy electro-banger to another at a relentless pace. Meanwhile Mayberry is an emphatic frontwoman, employing every tool at her disposal to keep the crowd engaged, including fist pumping, headbanging, body twirling, monitor jumping, and mic-cord tossing. Her former career as a music journalist was readily apparent in the way she worked the stage from one side of the audience to the other and leaned generously into the cameras of the photographers below.
I asked myself with increasing frequency as the show went on what else the band had left to top themselves with — every song dropped like a hit and was rapturously received. “Make Them Gold” straddled the line between punchy and poised; meanwhile “We Sink” ascended continuously to a beautiful breaking point. CHVRCHES have amassed more great songs for a live show than many classic bands do decades into their career, and they’ve done so while producing and writing their records all on their own.
The show proved a triumph for a combination of factors, including an integral light show that shifted through variations of geometric colors from song to song, as well as a thick sound mix with bass big enough to reach the backs of even the largest festival fields (although perhaps a little too loud — I was distracted at times from the musical compositions by the uncontrollable shaking of my body standing in front of the subs). The most valuable component, however, was Mayberry’s singular presence. This is not to diminish the role of Cook and Doherty, but rather is testament to just how much star power Mayberry holds. The 28-year-old vocalist has a commanding tone — blunt but with a conversational cadence, her Scottish accent slyly leaking during the cracks in the melodies. She’s professional, yet approachable — singing her own songs the way you sing them alone in your bedroom.
Early in the evening, Mayberry casually mentioned that the band has now played some 470 shows, and remarked on how each one always feels unique from the others. Credit for this belongs not to the changing audiences from night to night, but rather CHVRCHES’ ability to make every performance feel fresh through their interaction with the crowd. The first taste of Mayberry’s perfectly easygoing personality came following the third song, when she momentarily suspended the set and requested the lights be turned on so she could hunt for the sequins falling off her skirt. She provided updates on her progress throughout her search, before giving up and commenting on the special exchange that had just transpired between them, telling the crowd, “Hand in heart, I can tell you we’ve never had the sequin discussion with anyone else.”
The other unplanned break in the set came when Mayberry pointed out three individuals dressed in full-body animal suits on the second tier. After a few choice comments about the spectacle (i.e. touching on how their “eyes are really creeping me out,” and questioning “is it a sex thing?”), she invited them on stage. While the three furry fans made their way down the crowd and to the side, Mayberry was inspired to extend her banter and tell a loosely structured story about being harassed by someone in a chipmunk getup, presumably as either Disney’s Chip or Dale.
After a few more songs, the costumed participants finally made their way to the band during “Gun” and began to dance beside Mayberry — throwing off her cool considerably. She couldn’t finish lines of the song because she would trail off in laughter, and the vocals ducked out repeatedly — at least 50% of each chorus was omitted in giggling. “Sorry to anyone who wanted to hear that song actually sung,” she apologized. Although I was disappointed to see Mayberry fail to delivery the song’s massive chorus, it was hard to pin fault on her due to the absurdity of the situation. “I’m worried this is how I die,” she quipped. “We didn’t know each other before this right?” she asked the animals on stage. “Just so they know this isn’t some David Blaine trick.”
The animals remained as fuzzy back-up dancers during the subsequently cathartic “Bury It,” and Mayberry managed to keep it composed much better the second time around — actually engaging with the animals and bouncing with them rather than hiding her face to keep from bursting into a fit. They left the stage prior to Doherty’s two-song spotlight, a section in the set that saw the typically underutilized band member win over the crowd with an earnest demeanor and a whole lot of heart. Doherty isn’t nearly as charismatic as Mayberry — he doesn’t stand with the same action hero grace — but he makes up for it with unbridled follow-through, as well as by having written two absolute gems in “High Enough to Carry You Over” and “Under the Tide.”
The biggest moment of the night came during the unassailable force that is the drop on main set closer “Clearest Blue.” It’s the best release recorded on any of the band’s albums, and holds it’s own as one of the best drops of the past few years. It can break a sedentary crowd into thousands of springing pieces — releasing two minutes of built-up tension in a perfectly constructed melody of grinding synths. It feels like the nervous pit in your stomach suddenly imploding into self-assurance, and is the prime example of CHVRCHES’ ability to amplify untapped tides in the audience. Last night I saw this drop in action, and I haven’t come down since.