It’s been over a year since I saw Sufjan Stevens in concert, which means that it’s been over a year since I’ve been to a concert period. So perhaps the excitement of being back in a humid, crowded venue with sweat pouring down my face and my eardrums threatening to split at any moment somewhat colored my experience of seeing Danish “indie stadium band” Mew.
Be that as it may, the group put on a show that was, for lack of any better superlatives, mind-blowing.
There’s certainly much about Mew’s music that is worth a good eye roll or two. There are the blatant heavy metal riffs that butt right up against the ethereal, psychedelic synths and orchestral flourishes in a manner that that might be gratingly overwrought if it wasn’t so catchy. There’s Jonas Bjerre’s light falsetto, which is dramatically at odds with the pounding drums and almost cheesy epic metal sounds. And finally, there are those lyrics, those epic odes to chinaberry trees, baby foxes, giraffes, and jazz ballet saviors.
On paper, it seems a bit much. But there’s an earnestness and whimsy to Mew’s music that lets them get away with it, and even pull it all off brilliantly. So much so that And The Glass Handed Kites ranks as one of my favorite albums of 2006, and one I still listen to with a lot of frequency. Songs such as “Apocalypso” and “The Zookeeper’s Boy” pack some sort of strange Danish pixie thunder while “The Seething Rain Weeps For You” and “Louise Louisa” contain an emotional punch that is surprising at first, but one that never quite subsides.
Suffice to say, when I found at that Mew would be playing in Lincoln and Knickerbockers — a venue that I used to frequent quite often, but haven’t been to in well over two years — I was excited, but also a little apprehensive. There’s so much going on in the band’s music, from the synth and orchestral arrangements to the ultra-polished vocal harmonies, that it was difficult to imagine them pulling it all off live.
I needn’t have worried at all. Throughout their set, which found Mew playing about half of the material from And The Glass Handed Kites with a host of material from previous releases, the five-piece filled Knickerbockers with a raucous — and joyous — thunder that was absolutely riveting.
Despite a few lapses here and there — most of which were probably due to Bjerre’s constantly striving to hit those high notes — the band played like consummate professionals, hitting each and every mark with fine European precision. Which might have come across as somewhat artificial, if not for lightheartedness, and almost goofiness that pervaded their set — which only made it all the more affecting.
Adding to the joy of Mew’s performance were the visuals playing behind them. Which sounds odd when you consider the bulk of the visuals were comprised of all manner of surreal, even macabre material — car accidents involving bloody dolls, stop motion animal puppets playing violins, mutant Kewpie doll choirs ascending from the abyss, and so on.
At times, the visuals seemed a bit much, such as when Bjerre did a soulful duet with a sleepy-voiced video redhead. But at the same time, there was a dark whimsy about those Kewpie dolls and strange, glowing eel fetuses floating up above the band’s heads that was quite fitting for the band’s brand of pretentious art rock (their term, not mine).
The experience might have been hilarious, surreal, and absurd at times, but it was also beautiful and even stirring. Seeing stick-figure angels racing across an apocalyptic wasteland, or stars going supernova, or glorious polar landscapes play out behind the band only made it easier to succumb and be overwhelmed by the band’s grandiose flourishes. And made it inevitable that I would walk home from Knickerbockers sweaty, sore, half-deaf, and rained upon — but also exceedingly intoxicated by music, joyful, and thankful.
I missed the first part of Oh No! Oh My!’s opening set, but was pleasantly surprised by their set. It was constantly tempting to brush them off as some sort of “quirky indie-pop” act. But their music constantly kept me guessing between the battery of synths and odd instruments, the funky rhythms, and dry vocals. Every time I thought I knew who they reminded me of, the Austin, Texas outfit pull a quick one, turn on a dime, and head off in direction other than what I was expecting.
Perhaps the almost two-year break did affect my critical opinion of the night. All I know is that, as Mew tore through a too-short-yet-absolutely-perfect version of “Special,” one of And The Glass Handed Kites most exuberant tracks, I found myself boogeying with the sort of rock-induced convulsions I thought I had long since grown out of. I’m pleased to discover how dreadfully wrong I was.