Rise Against, Alkaline Trio, Thrice, the Gaslight Anthem Thursday, November 13, 2008 Fillmore Auditorium Better than: Taking in a punk show in an arena setting.
Finding the optimal spot to take in the sound at the Fillmore Auditorium can be a tricky task. With the auditorium’s wide wings, its open floor and its cramped balconies, the sound quality can depend largely on where you choose to stand or sit. What may sound like a horrible mixing job from near the stage may turn out to be crisp and clear from the vantage of the balcony, or vice versa.
This phenomenon can be frustrating, especially at a packed show like Rise Against last night, where the throngs of petulant teenagers, punk veterans sporting chains and mohawks and conservatively dressed college students made navigating almost all parts of the theater an exercise in crowd surfing. While the tricky sound dynamics diminished all of the four bands’ sets, the blown out guitar tones and muddled vocals did nothing to dampen the almost palpable energy and enthusiasm from the overwhelming crowd.
Even Gaslight Anthem, as an opening act, drew throngs to the front of the stage before the entire crowd had arrived. The open spaces of the Fillmore seemed to negatively impact Gaslight’s sound the most – at least from near the front of the stage. Lead singer Brian Fallon’s vocals, complemented by his sparse, minimalistic guitar solos, failed to find full clarity under the pressure of excessive distortion. The effect caught up with the band’s performance at certain uneven performance points, as some solos were derailed from the support of drummer Benny Horowitz’ and bassist Alex Lavine’s rhythm section.
Still, Anthem’s set boasted some enjoyable moments. The band’s innovative mix of straightforward punk cadences and classic rock and soul cues came across in certain songs, such as their cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s Motown standard “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” While they took liberties with the verses and the basic structure of the song, its sentiment and effect wasn’t lost with the changes.
Thrice’s set provided a much more professional mix, as guitarist Teppei Teranishi’s shredded solos and drummer Riley Breckenridge’s syncopated lines came across clearly behind vocalist Dustin Kensrue’s insistent lyrics. What’s more, the synthesized tones cut through the distortion, particularly on songs like “The Sky is Falling,” in which the bell lines rang clearly. Combined with a widespread chorus of clapping from the audience, the effect lent for one of the set’s highlights. Another high point came during the band’s faithful cover of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” with a due amount of fuzz tone in the bass and an impressive degree of desperation in Kensrue’s vocals.
By the time the Alkaline Trio took to the stage, the crowd was growing to truly enormous proportions. The Fillmore’s spacious floor was filled almost to the back stairs, to the point where walking ten feet could take as many minutes. The trio busted out a set with enough energy and volume to capture and retain the attention of the sizable audience. After a theatric entrance under a warm red set of spotlights, the band plowed through songs that ran the chronological gamut of their career. Tunes like “Calling All Skeletons,” “Over and Out” and “This Could Be Love” came across clearly, despite the same distortion and muddling that undermined Anthem’s set. Guitarist Matt Skiba and bassist Dan Andriano’s dual harmonies carried over and inconsistencies in the mixing, as well as the crowd noise, to provide a solid aural anchor, while drummer Derek Grant laid down consistent rhythms. The band also paid tribute to a unique Denver institution between songs, giving a shout out to Casa Bonita as one of our fair city’s highlights.
When Rise Against finally took to the stage, the already raucous crowd erupted. With a dramatic entrance that involved a complex series of flashing lights set up behind a large banner with the word “RISE” spelled out towering letters, the set’s opening recalled the pomp and splendor of a stadium show. Along with songs from older albums like The Sufferer and the Witness and Siren Song of the Counter Culture, the set drew largely from the band’s new album, Appeal to Reason, as the band played tunes like “Collapse (Post-Amerika)” and “Re-education Through Labor” early on.
The relative freshness of the Appeal to Reason material did not diminish the large crowd’s participation. Coordinated fist pumps and an audible chorus of audience members singing along marked the entire set. The enthusiasm was stoked by the band members, as lead singer Tim McIlrath personalized the performance -- praising Colorado’s newfound role as a blue state in November’s election and exhorting the crowd to sing along. Brandon Barnes’ frenzied drumming, which showed marks of his jazz background in its use of a pocket, spurred Zach Blair’s frenetic guitar lines and Joe Principe’s steady bass. For all the band’s bravura and all the stage’s décor, the set suffered from a pitfall that was familiar at this point in the show – muddled mixing. While moving to a spot in the wings yielded a better sound, the constant movement required to find the best spot detracted from the set.
Again, this downfall did not stop the enormous crowd from participating. Like the bands that preceded it on stage, Rise Against managed to electrify the large number of fans. But in the end, the very scope and scale of the concert seemed to defy the bands’ purported punk roots. Considering the old school punk roots that Rise Against covets in interviews, the show seemed to veer too far astray from the genre’s origins in cramped nightclubs and intimate bars.
I ran into a friend at an ATM, one who’d regularly attended punk shows in high school and said he had hoped the Fillmore show would revive some of the glory days from his youth.
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“It feels more like a prom,” he said, taking in the large crowds of teens with a sweeping gesture of his hand. “It’s lost the intimacy.”
It could have been worse, I suppose. Rise Against could have played from the fifty-yard line at Invesco or taken the stage at the Pepsi Center. There would have been even larger crowds to contend with.
-- A.H. Goldstein
Critic’s Notebook: Personal bias: Thrice’s cover of “Helter Skelter” was especially apt for me. I always considered the “White Album” track to be not only one of the Beatles’ angriest songs, but a very early antecedent of the subsequent punk movement. In a small way, the performance confirmed my theory. Random note: One of my friends told me he was the one who had taken Matt Skiba, the lead singer and guitarist for the Alkaline Trio, to Casa Bonita the day before. Apparently, the experience was special enough to inspire a tribute on stage. Way to go, cliff divers.