Sole opener and Jersey-bred, solo singer-songwriter Brian McGee looked like an older version of Jake Gyllenhaal in Bubble Boy, but sounded like a more Americana-leaning Ted Leo. He was a friendly figure, often engaging in direct, stunted conversation with audience members that would shout out random questions at will. But his bread-and-butter were stripped-down folk songs with the occasional harmonica, with subject matter often regarding the women that had wronged him (not unlike the act he was opening for). They probably shared some influences, too (I'm thinking the Toms of the Waits and Petty variety). It was a nice warm-up.
Shortly after 10:00, the Horrible Crowes came out onto the stage to raucous applause, looking dapper in sharp suits. It was something frontman Brian Fallon would touch upon frequently within the first few songs, summating the choice of dress with a shoulder-shrugging "why not?". The band's hushed, commanding subtlety began in perfect form with "Last Rites", the opener from their newly released debut, Elsie. This is probably what it felt like watching the National around 2002 or so: a confident, talented band with high-end aesthetics winding their way through morose, humming "rock" songs, promising something seriously special.
From there, the set was a calculated saunter of nimble, atmospheric guitars and keys and tumbling, forlorn hooks, but offered in occasionally more impromptu deliveries: the band slow-jammed an extended outro to "I Witnessed a Crime", and during "Ladykiller", Fallon slipped in a few words from the Cure's "Pictures of You".
As the Crowes made their way through Elsie, they took breaks for Fallon to engage the audience with honest articulations and oft-rambling that showed he hadn't necessarily rehearsed all this banter between. He largely ignored the tired, clichéd hoots and hollers occasionally barked back at him ("BRUUUUCE!"; "Jerseyyyyy!"). And when the band had begun to run out of songs, one crowd member suggested to "Make one up!" So Fallon started playing a quirky riff and repeatedly singing "No refunds!" as the band joined in and improvised for a few moments as the crowd chuckled. Regarding "I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together": "It's not a religious song, so don't freak out."
One concern was the mid-set cover of Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream", something the band had already tried at a recent in-store performance. But the surprise was how they tackled it, guiding the hit single with incredible patience and the band's signature tones of reflection and wistfulness. It was shockingly well-done.
It was fun hearing the men in the audience growl back the hooks to "Go Tell Everybody" and "Mary Ann", too-essentially, funny imitations of a man imitating his own idols.
Barely even regarding this was the band's first official show, more or less, it was a wonderful set. The cover choices were fearless, unpredictable picks (see what the other one was below), and the band conducted their own material with the same deliberation and steadiness the album exudes. But seeing it all unfold live with their broken emotion and aching care really makes Elsie hit that much harder.
Set list (10:03-11:18):
- Last Rites
- Behold the Hurricane
- I Witnessed a Crime
- Go Tell Everybody
- Cherry Blossoms
- Teenage Dream [Katy Perry cover]
- Mary Ann
- Black Betty & the Moon
- Blood Loss
- I Believe Jesus Brought Us Together
- Never Tear Us Apart [INXS cover]