Sea Wolf, Nada Surf April 1, 2008 Bluebird Theater Better Than: A sound-check that lasts all night
“Politicians are at their worst when they’re talking about politics,” my friend Brett said to me as we were leaving the Nada Surf show at the Gothic Tuesday evening. “Same holds true for musicians.” Like any such maxim uttered after five Coors Lights, Brett’s words are up for debate. Sometimes you want to hear Obama talk about stumping in a bowling alley just like sometimes it’s cool to hear your geek-musician buddy go off on John Frusciante’s technical prowess. But for the first handful of songs that comprised Nada Surf’s set, Brett’s words rang true.
Lead singer-songwriter Matthew Caws had just rejoined the group after spending time at home with his son in NYC, the mop-topped front man explained, and as a result had missed sound-check. Thus the audience - which had been whipped into a frenzy by opening band Sea Wolf - smiled politely and nodded their aging heads through what was essentially a six-song sound-check, interspersed with “tech-talk,” as Caws called it. As a result opener “Concrete Bed,” lacked teeth, as did rocker “Happy Kid” from Let Go, and “Whose Authority,” a personal favorite off the new album Lucky, sounded like they’d never played it before. The introduction of Calexico troubadour Martin Wenk elicited cheers from the crowd, but alas, led to more technical confusion, and I began to think that maybe the group was not cut out for venues this large.
And then, suddenly, the tech-talk ceased, the sound was adjusted and Nada Surf began to take over. Caws introduced “Inside of Love,” as their “Motown song,” but explained that despite the presence of Wenk, there was a real lack of horns and that he needed the audience to replace those horns by…swaying side to side! No one seemed to find this request either odd or incapable of solving a paucity of brass, and simply began swaying back-and-forth as instructed. Such is the power of Caws’ stage-presence. Like some happy-go-lucky, pothead kindergarten teacher who gives every kid a gold star, Caws is just likeable; so when he tells you to sway or makes weird references to Indiana Jones and Star Wars, you just go along with it and think, Yup, I’m enrolling my kid in that guy’s class next fall.
Next up was “Fruit Flies,” a build-up rocker with an almost catatonically slow opening – so much so that when a stray fan let out an emphatic, “Whoo!” during the near silence, Caws couldn’t prevent himself from cracking up and stopping the song altogether. Similar airy moments occurred when the trio was cranking up for their next tune, only for a menacing cry of “Popular,” to surface from the balcony, uttered almost as a challenge, as if the band would never dare play the 1996 MTV hit-single that put them on the map, as though they would never dare reference the days before they truly developed the indie-lullaby expertise that lands them on so many critics favorite lists.
“We’ll play that song,” Caws responded. “We like that song.”
And so “Popular” ensued, and a sea of shoe-gazing heads suddenly banged their bald-spots to and fro, remembering high school football and cheerleaders and late nights watching the Buzz Bin. Afterwards Caws explained that some critic once asked the group if it was frustrating that people still only know the group for a twelve-year-old song.
“Does anyone here only know us for that song?” he inquired to resounding boos of absolutely-not. “Okay then. It’s just another fucking tune for us.”
Caws, bassist Daniel Lorca, (smoking, drinking, seemingly wishing to be somewhere else yet completely on-point), and drummer Ira Elliot continued on for over an hour like the road-warriors they are before closing out their encore with, “The Blankest Year,” a song whose lyrics, “Ah fuck it… I’m gonna have a party,” perfectly and succinctly capture the joyous pathos of Nada Surf’s music. “Fuck Iiiiiit,” the audience sang back at every reprise, distinguishing all memories of a show that began essentially as a sound-check.
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Personal Bias: I saw Nada Surf at the Bluebird a couple years back and it was one of those random shows where the group so unexpectedly knocks it out of the park that you’re forced to include it in your list of, “Dude, all-time favorite shows.” So it’s hard to top that one for me.
Random Detail: Looking down at the audience from the balcony I couldn’t help but think Nada Surf should be an entry on the blog, “Stuff White People Like.”
By The Way: Lisa, from Sea Wolf, joined the group for “Stalemate” with her accordion. Never knew chicks with accordions could be so hot. They can.