It's almost not fair to call Fran Healy an opener. The Scottish front man of acoustic indie rock band Travis has plenty of experience headlining shows. He's got an engaging stage presence -- and the star power to pack the house before the main event. "I just put out a solo record. Don't tell my band. Don't twat that." The crowd roared with laughter.
Last night at the Ogden, Healy took us through a punchy routine, predictably simple acoustic melodies that highlighted his lyrics supplemented by anecdotes covering everything from writing a song about snails for his four-year-old to becoming a vegetarian to thank Paul McCartney for playing bass on one of his newly released tracks. After all, "What do you get a Beatle?" he quipped.
Healy was the foil to the main event, though, getting the crowd warmed up for another front man gone solo. "Get off!" He mocked us playfully by way of a farewell. "We just want to stare at Brandon's crotch!"
A half an hour later, after a crew of roadies had made endless adjustments to the stage, chords pierced the pitch blackness that still enveloped the Ogden. Dim light broke just in time for Brandon Flowers, frontman of the Killers (currently taking a break), to forcefully grip the microphone and sing the first lyrics of "On the Floor," a track that began lilting and twangy and built to an emphatic opening.
In September of this year, Flowers released his first solo album, Flamingo, and while it's absolutely possible to draw similarities between his work and that of the Killers -- both are heavily steeped in influence from the 1980s -- Flowers's new album plays up the rock, trading in much of the synth-pop overlay for anthemic sequences, country and blues riffs and electric guitar. Bruce Springsteen served as a muse for both phases of Flowers's career; you can really hear it on Flamingo, and you can also hear Johnny Cash.
Clad in suspenders and a cuffed-short sleeve shirt and rocking a hair cut dangerously close to the military high-and-tight, Flowers played up the homage to Americana last night. He wasn't much of a talker, preferring to let his antics during songs and lighting schemes tell his story instead. He was theatrical while performing -- jumping up and down and mounting the subwoofers -- but he was also restrained, as if each move had been carefully choreographed.
His lighting scheme had definitely been constructed with precision. "Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts," perhaps the most Springsteen-invoking track on the album, began in a bright yellow glow, ending dramatically in blue lights and fog. An eerie red hue provided the backdrop to an amped up version of "Swallow It." And the backlighting during the Killers-like track "Was it Something I Said?" invoked an 1800s fairground stage, old-fashioned, small-town America pumped full of rock and roll.
What little the singer did say was reminiscent of a Southern minister, his passionate, quaking voice preaching from his pulpit. And from that pulpit, he gave us a brief history of bouncing, poppy "Magdalena," inspired by an annual sixty-mile walk between the towns of Nogales and Magdalena, Mexico. He noted that "Right Behind You" had been a B-side, cut from the original album. He asked once if a song sounded familiar. But beyond that, one song led into another without anecdotes or pretense. Brandon Flowers clearly didn't intend to fuck around.
After he led a fist-pumping, screaming sing-along audience through his set list, which was sprinkled mercifully with a few tracks from the Killers, scratching the itch of old fans dying for a resurgence, he exited without ceremony at the close of a guitar solo on the ambient "Playing With Fire," just over an hour after he took the stage. The crowd erupted, hungry for more.
"Thanks for coming tonight," he said when he returned. Without further ado, he played a couple more songs: a hymn-like rendition of "Human" giving way to the climactic "Only the Young," which included a hand routine taught to the eager audience. That song bled seamlessly into "Mr. Brightside," a Killers single that had everyone dancing. A smile broke across his face, and I couldn't help but smile back. And then he was gone, as abruptly as he'd gone before.
It's undeniable that Flowers has contagious musical charm, and he's learned how to put together a no-bull-shit entertaining show. That's going to make his legion of fans, Killers devotees and new followers alike, go crazy every time. Selfishly, though, I'd love to see him loosen up a little, channeling a little less of his influences and a little more of the spirit that infuses his sound. And he could take a cue from his opener -- a little banter goes a long way in making an audience feel like they got something beyond a face to put with the album.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Critic's Bias: I suppose you could call me a fan of the Killers, though my experience with the band comes mostly from listening to other peoples' playlists. Random fact: The name of Flowers's album: Flamingo. Pictured prominently on the drumset: a gaudy pink flamingo. By the way: Flowers's band was an eclectic group -- two back-up singers in black and white vintage dresses, a bassist who wore sunglasses for the whole show and a band member who looked like ZZ Top.
FRAN HEALY 11.18.10 | Ogden Theatre Denver, CO
Sing Sing Me to Sleep Fly in the Ointment Anything As it Comes As You Are Buttercup
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BRANDON FLOWERS 11.18.10 | Ogden Theatre
On the Floor Crossfire Magdalena Bette Davis Eyes Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts Right Behind You Was it Something I Said? Hard Enough Losing Touch Swallow It Playing With Fire
Human Only the Young/Mr. Brightside