From the moment the Dewar brothers took the stage and opened with "Life is Like a Merry Go Round Until the Burial Ground," it was clear that they had ample personality and presence, something one of the brothers attributed in part to having six PBRs before getting on stage. There were some immediate and obvious touchstones to the music, from the eccentric, broken lyrical and musical phrasings of the Fall to the silly, sometimes inspired, playfulness of They Might Be Giants. A number of the songs also evoked Robyn Hitchcock's solo material, as well as Pulp -- but without sounding like any of that.
At one point during their set, the Dewar Brothers informed us that the place they're from is "a really good place to die" and then played "The Neverglades." This sort of sardonic, dark, offbeat sense of humor characterized the band's banter between songs, even when one of the guitars malfunctioned and one of the brothers awkwardly told bad jokes, knowing full well they were lame but somehow managing to win us over anyway.
If nothing else, The Dewars proved themselves to be a compelling band whose penchant for colorful storytelling only added to their already considerable charm as performers fully capable of laughing at themselves as part of the fun. You have to have a sense of humor, apparently, to survive being a band like this in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The Drums from New York came on to a fog enshrouded stage as an extended bit of Kraftewerk's "The Man Machine" played over the speakers. A more jaded listener would hear this band and dismiss it as copping that whole Interpol and Strokes thing, but the Drums are going for something very different from that.
Singer Jonathan Pierce really has that blue-eyed soul thing down, and he's willing to look the fool to keep the show entertaining. At one point in the set, in fact, he told us that it was okay to dance and loosen up a little because we couldn't possibly look as foolish as the band did on stage. After he said this, the crowd actually did move some more.
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Throughout the set, Pierce struck poses and gestured dramatically, adding to the fact that this band really knows how to put on a show instead of just getting up and playing the music, as both guitarists locked in with each other and executed flourishes with their instruments in time with Pierce.
Vocally, Pierce recalled Ian McCulloch and Jim Kerr, while the music, with obviously sequenced synth parts filling in on atmosphere and backing melodies, had a lush, layered sound informed by catchy pop structures. The Drums closed out their set with a version of "Down By the Water" that was more powerful than the recorded version thanks to notably robust percussion, drum beats that hit like gunshots.
Before Surfer Blood took stage, the theme from Jurassic Park played and the guys strode to their respective positions in relative darkness. When the lights came back on, the band went immediately into a spirited performance of "Fast Jabroni." The energy of these guys was insistent and it never really flagged. "Take It Easy" was almost unrecognizable because it was played with such passionate zeal -- something that doesn't always work when you're making a recording.
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During "Twin Peaks," a bubble machine discharged a stream of bubbles from both sides of the stage and instead of seeming like a gimmick, it added to the festive environment Surfer Blood created with the music. "Catholic Pagans" evoked Weezer without sounding like Surfer Blood was nicking that outfit's vibe. For "Harmonix," JP Pitts and Tom Fekete were able to highlight the shift in rhythm and mood provided by Tyler Schwarz and Brian Black, making the song sound like it had two distinct movements.
As Surfer Blood closed its main set with what sounded like an expanded version of "Anchorage," Pitts came down off the stage and rocked out with the crowd a little. The reaction was so enthusiastic that the band came back out and turned what was usually a two-song encore into four songs that began with just Pitt singing solo and playing guitar, telling us we'd been a great audience and that he was surprised we had stayed. Silly guy.
The rest of the band joined Pitt for "Neighbour Riffs" and joked about how they hoped they could remember how to play "Slow Jabroni" (they did). The whole thing came to an end with an excellent cover of Pavement's "Box Elder." Like everyone else on the bill, Surfer Blood also didn't skimp on the showmanship, and Pitt proved to be an unconventionally compelling frontman who can actually sing instead of covering it over with guitar volume.
CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK Personal Bias: If bands know how to put on a show without seeming phony I tend to like them a lot better. Random Detail: One of the guitarists for the Drums looked like he was playing a Rickenbacker 360 through a Roland JC-120 -- a solid choice for the sound he pulls off with that band. By the Way: All of these bands were surprisingly good, and they all have albums worth seeking out.