TVD Live: Islands at the Grog Shop, 9/19

The band left their entire set list in plain view under a spotlight towards the front of the stage. Everyone in the first few rows could clearly see they planned two songs for the encore. That didn’t stop them from waiting backstage for several minutes while the young audience screamed their own brains out. A guy in the crowd yelled, “Thank you!” and followed it up with “Yeah, bitch!” when the band finally came back on stage.

Before the last song, lead singer Nicholas Thorburn said, “It’s been six, eight years since I’ve been here?”

“Six years,” someone yelled back.

“Too long. Like in that David Bowie song, ‘Six Years.’”

The crowd applauded with loving zeal after every song—any song. They whistled and screamed their excitement, and Islands deserved it. Their live show was full of faithful reproductions of the album versions—like watching the band nail take after take in the studio.

The tracks sounded so faithful thanks mostly to the backing band’s perfectionist instrumental aptitude. The Gordon brothers, Evan and Geordie, switched adeptly between playing keyboards and bass and guitar. They not only replicated the notes and arrangements of every song, but the very tone of their instruments was spot on and uncannily similar, which is a hard thing to replicate live.

I was a little worried during the first few songs as Thorburn’s vocals were buried under the instruments, making it hard to pick out the vocal melodies let alone any actual lyrics. After the second song, he asked for “more vocals,” and the sound was brought into a perfect equilibrium.

Like their albums, Thorburn’s idiosyncratic voice formed a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the band. His vocals were interesting and dynamic enough to keep the overt pop of the shimmery keyboards and guitars from being too pretty as to be boring. The rest of the band, in turn, helped ground his vocals from becoming too off-kilter. The interplay between both was all the more impressive in this live setting where such a balancing act as more likely to go horribly wrong.

Drummer Adam Halferty deserves special mention. He was dressed like an Amish man who used his rumspringa to wear all-denim outfits and play in a rock band. His drumming was one of the main departures from the album versions of their songs. Islands’ percussiveness tends to be buried in the mix on albums, but in the live setting, they had much more presence.

Even though the audience went wild before every song, tracks off the band’s first album, Return to the Sea, somehow got even bigger reactions. The crowd would go nuts with each return to their debut—as if each and every kid in the Grog Shop pooled their money into the lottery and just found out they won. They sang along to each song off this album and no other songs.

The only person in the audience who didn’t look like she was having a good time was a blonde girl in the front row. She stood with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed. She looked so unhappy, it was comical, but the magic of Islands swayed her by the end. With just a few songs to go, she started smiling broadly and eventually dancing along with everyone else. Islands prevailed over her bad mood.

As great as it was to hear stunning recreations of these songs live, the two highlights of the night were where the band departed a little from the original arrangements.

When “Where There’s A Will, There’s a Whalebone” began, I leaned over to the woman next to me and said, “This is the song with the rap part in it—I wonder how they’re going to do this one.” They resolved the absence of guest rappers Subtitle and Busdriver by substituting their parts with an impressive instrumental breakdown, which was an interesting change of pace from the album version.

Similarly, they ended “Swans” with a rocking instrumental part. There was no soloing in either of the songs—or any of the songs—but they infused the proceedings with tightly arranged noise-pop that showed off everyone’s instrumental chops.

It seems unlikely it will take another six years for Islands to come back to Cleveland after the adoration the audience poured upon them. And as long as Thorburn and company keep focusing on great live shows (instead of making factually incorrect David Bowie references), indie kids of Cleveland will keep coming to their concerts. That’s another great symbiotic relationship.

PHOTO: CHRISTIAN FAUSTUS

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