Show review: The Twilight Sad at Brighton Music Hall – 2/26

Let’s just be clear on the fact that I am a total fanboy for The Twilight Sad. Their formula of loud-quiet-loud shoegaze-y post-punk on Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters struck exactly the right chord for me, and I’ve been following them ever since. I was bit unsure of how they’d pull off integrating their old material with the synth-heavy Cure-via-krautrock songs from their latest record during live performance, but my fears were proven unfounded. Their set was tight, well-sequenced and brilliantly executed. This is a band that knows their material and how to make it work on stage.

Before our Scottish heroes actually took the stage, though, we were treated to two opening acts. The first was singer-songwriter Micah P. Hinson, who is evidently much more well-liked in Europe than the US (his words). Hinson played a series of endearing, folksy songs on acoustic guitar, with occasional backing vocals from his wife serving as his only accompaniment. From his off-kilter croon to the Woody Guthrie reference scrawled on his guitar (‘This machine kills fascists’), Hinson was a few continents and decades stylistically removed from the evening’s headliner. A set of good songs and some hilariously self-deprecating stage banter made him a worthy addition to the lineup, regardless.

Up next was New York-based quintet Forest Fire. The band initially seemed a bit nervous on stage, but eased up once they’d worked through a few songs. Their sound was somewhere between folk and straightforward indie rock, with occasional splashes of punk-y vocals and attention-grabbing guitar work. Vocalist/guitarist Mark Thresher was talkative and charming, and did his best to keep the crowd engaged even during an unfortunately time-consuming technical issue toward the end of the set. Forest Fire were a fun opener, which was a good counter-balance to the intensity that would follow.

The Twilight Sad’s late arrival due to travel issues resulted in a sound check immediately following Forest Fire’s set, which I initially worried might remove a bit of the mystique from the show. It’s a bit like looking at production photos from a film set before you see the film. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t quite feel right. Thankfully though, my apprehension was once again misguided. Once the band had departed from the stage, fifteen minutes passed before the house lights dimmed and a loud noise reminiscent of a distorted siren began playing at three or four second intervals over the PA. The band re-emerged and almost immediately overpowered the siren sound, which we now realized had been setting the tempo for No One Can Ever Know single ‘Kill It in the Morning.’ As the song’s bass line kicked in, whatever awkwardness carried over from the sound check dissipated instantly.

Interestingly, the band has chosen the new record’s cathartic closer as the opening song for this tour. I think the choice was a valid one though. The song is driving, intense and immediately attention grabbing. It works best at the end of the album, but it’s a perfect introduction in a live show to the band’s evolving style. There’s a bit of the old and the new. From there, the setlist was a pretty even mix of material from the new record and older cuts from Fourteen Autumns and Forget the Night Ahead. The largely moody and restrained nature of the new songs became even more evident when played side-by-side with older material, but that gave the set a sense of balance. And even if the new songs sounded less bombastic, they certainly weren’t lacking in feeling.

Lyricist/singer James Graham is one of the more engaged and intense vocalists I’ve ever seen perform live. He made it about thirty seconds into the first song with his microphone still attached to the stand, preferring constant movement around the stage to standing in any one place for too long. Graham alternated between calm pacing while singing and throwing himself to his knees shouting. He sold every word. Or at least he did when he was audible. Whoever was running the boards at Brighton the other night had some issues keeping the vocals anywhere near loud enough, and so Graham was unfortunately rendered too quiet or totally inaudible on more than a few songs. It was a frustrating distraction that should’ve been dealt with sooner than it was.

Granted, part of the issue may have been the vocals having to compete with the massive volume being output by the rest of the band. The Twilight Sad have a reputation for skull-crushingly loud live shows, and while I did leave with my skull intact, the walls of noise emitting from guitarist Andy MacFarlane’s half-stack were far from polite. Through doubled-up delay and distortion pedals and a few tremolo bar tricks borrowed from Kevin Shields, MacFarlane commanded what sounded like an army of guitars from a single Fender Jaguar. This, in combination with the tight rhythm section (Mark Devine on drums, Johnny Docherty on bass) and synth work from Martin Doherty (contributing backbone to newer songs and atmosphere to older ones), rendered the band a sonic force to be reckoned with. It was an impressive, gloriously loud display. The next morning may have seen me regretting the decision to take out my earplugs midway through ‘Kill It in the Morning,’ but it was worth it. I’ve always said there are bands that I’m willing to sacrifice small bits of my hearing to, and that most of them are called Swans, but The Twilight Sad have officially joined that very exclusive group.

After an hour-plus on stage, the band closed its set with a heavy rendition of ‘At the Burnside’ from Forget the Night Ahead, which culminated in members leaving the stage one by one while the bass and guitar were left to lean against their amplifiers and fill the room with a My Bloody Valentine-esque wall of feedback. There would be no encore, but one didn’t feel necessary or obligatory in this case. This was a masterful, well-planned set from a phenomenal and seriously underrated band. Hell of a way to close out a weekend.

Below are a few pictures I snapped at the show. Keep in mind that concert photography is harder than it looks, and also that I barely know how to take pictures in broad daylight. Regardless, I think getting a visual sense of a show, however rough, is worthwhile.