Happy Hollow has been a grower for me. While Cursive's other post-break-up records, Domestica and The Ugly Organ were immediately striking, this year's release has required a bit more effort. At this point I can say that it is still in its adolescent stages for me, far from being a favorite record or constant listen, so when Cursive played Cleveland a couple months back, I passed. Then I saw they were coming again, this time with a band's whose entire catalogue I have no qualms with: the Thermals. So I figured, "What the hell?" Why not check out the Thermals and see if Cursive's newest material is more moving in the live setting.
I missed opener Ladyfinger and entered The Grog Shop to some between-set jazz on the sound system, grabbed a beer, and milled around for a bit before the Thermals took the stage. They opened with "Our Trip," simply pulsing bass, thudding drums, and short jabs of melody. Singer/guitarist Hutch Harris looked thin and frail with his signature pop-like yell coming out clear and dead on. The atmosphere was a bit strange during the band's first few songs, all of which were off of Fuckin' A. The audience seemed apathetic and Harris's "thanks" almost sarcastic. It wasn't until 4 or 5 songs in when the crowd came to life, pushing, bouncing, and causing a couple of beers to spill. At the end of this turning point tune the band's (new? touring?) drummer stood up and pointed at the crowd while Harris announced, "This is the Cleveland I remember!"
From then on the band was much more enthused, using the crowd as a conduit to power their lo-fi punk. Harris intensified his strum and sway while bassist Kathy Foster pogoed like a 16-year-old and the audience followed suit. The band also added a second guitarist after the first few songs that would stay for the rest of the set. His added fuzz not only made the band more powerful, but also more dynamic as there was now the chance to build up the guitars, and then break them back down.
Harris would offer his gratitude to the now lively crowd a few more times before the band's set was over, claiming that he always told people he loved Cleveland (a statement backed by a recent Pitchfork interview). The band rocked a good mix of material including "It's Trivia," "No Culture Icons," "How We Know," "Top of the Earth," "Every Stitch," "Here's Your Future," "I Might Need You to Kill," "A Pillar of Salt," "Returning to the Fold," and "St. Rosa and the Swallows." It was an impassioned (Harris was covered in sweat by the end) and honest set, one where you could tell the band was having as good a time as the audience and performed all the better because of it.
As the members of Cursive took the stage it was apparent they had brought along a few pals. There were 8 musicians in all crowded onto the Grog's stage, adding trombone, baritone sax, trumpet/keyboard, and cello/keyboard players to the regular foursome. It was an interesting move, but also one that seemed necessary after hearing Happy Hollow with all of its brass bombast and grandiose eruptions.
After an avant-noisy buildup the band, or at least everyone except guitarist Ted Stevens, launched into "Gentleman Caller." I mean, sure Stevens was playing, but he seemed completely disinterested; wearing a frown on his face and merely staring at his hands like precision was more important than performance. Throughout the set Tim Kasher was passionate in his delivery, bassist Matt Maginn moved about the stage, sometimes sporting goofy facial expressions, and even the added members seemed down with the rock. It was only Stevens, who still merely shuffled a bit with downcast eyes, that didn't seem excited by the prospect of the show. Overall, it made for a strange dynamic. If you looked in one direction the band was excited and devoted; if you looked in the other, they were bored and placid.
The added instrumentation did seem worth it however, giving the band's newest material, songs like "Opening the Hymnal / Babies," "Big Bang," and "Hymns for the Heathen," a more massive presence, while it also added some nice atmosphere to older numbers. The band didn't play much from their first two albums ("Ceilings Crack" and "A Little Song and Dance") focusing mostly on the latter three and the Burst and Bloom EP. Songs included "The Casualty," "The Martyr," "Sink to the Beat," "Mothership, Mothership," "Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand," "Art Is Hard," "The Recluse," and "Sierra."
Kasher stopped twice during the set to take requests, which was a nice touch, but he seemed a bit too anxious to get back to the set list. With one song left to go drummer Clint Schnase came up to Kasher's microphone to announce, "We are trying to party and have a good time with you guys, but if you are going to throw full beer cans then it can't happen." It was after this that Stevens seemed to finally come out of his cocoon adding, "Uh oh, you all just got in trouble" with a smirk, but it was too little too late. The band played their last song, offered no encore (whether spurred by the beer throwing, I don't know), and walked off stage leaving me still on the fence about Happy Hollow and Cursive live.