Somewhere in the miasma of 2000s pop-punk, Jacksonville's Yellowcard shot to fame. When the band played UC Berkeley on Saturday, it showed it has no intention of dismounting the rocket. With a combination of anthemic lyrics, a charismatic frontman, and a violinist(!) who is more like a stealth secret weapon, Yellowcard delighted its small audience of mostly Asian Cal students. After a half-hour rain delay and sets by opening bands Mates of State and Aesop Rock, the band took the stage, tore into the powerful single "Breathing" from its debut album, and delivered song after song with Red Bull-like energy.
Lead singer and official heartthrob Ryan Key is less scrawny, more confident, and singing better than even himself on the Ocean Avenue debut album. The last time I saw Yellowcard play, it was in a UC Irvine basketball gym that was the acoustic equivalent of a cereal box, so it was a treat to hear him properly. (Even feedback sounds good at the Greek Theatre.) On songs like "Only One" and "Ocean Avenue," he sang as though to a lover instead of a crowd; his restraint made the songs sound fresh and true to their original spirit.
Convention-shattering Sean Mackin is an electric-violin-playing, Japanese-American cannonball of giddy excitement. He danced as he produced that infectious string-rock that elevates the band above the competition in the eyes of many rock critics, and leapt to the microphone to sing lead vocals on "Twenty-three" from Ocean Avenue. He was sometimes hard to hear, especially on songs like the sing-along "Only One," with a switch to what one student in the crowd called "acoustic violin."
Key is blessed in his bandmates, who are not only talented musicians, but genuinely listen to each other. The result was sublime moments when Key's voice and Ryan Mendez' guitar became ethereally one, or when bassist Peter Mosely joined in on perfectly balanced backing vocals.
The concert was a benefit for Amnesty International. Before Yellowcard went onstage, a Berkeley student representative for Amnesty gave an impassioned speech decrying the atrocities in Darfur. Limiting the concert only to students was a shame, as almost the entire terrace section was empty. Still, Key made the best of it while struggling to fix a stuck microphone stand, saying, "This is one of the biggest shows we've played in a while." Key asked the audience to listen to a few new songs from the upcoming album Paper Walls and admitted that even as an arena veteran, "I'm nervous, I'm not gonna lie." He previewed songs including "Light Up the Sky" and "Fighting." It was clear that Yellowcard's romantic angst is maturing to thoughtful political angst. "Believe" was dedicated to "servicemen ... we support them but not the mission."
The openers were so jarringly different as to leave students wondering if they had come to the right show. The Mates of State are would-be hipsters Kori Gardner on keys and Jason Hammel on drums, but you'd never know they're a couple from their disconnected-feeling set. Gardner's blond bangs hid her face Muppet-style as she overused the synth organ sound on her keyboard, and Hammel drummed and sang as though she wasn't even there. They sounded significantly better when Gardner sang in a lower range instead of trying to match Hammel's yowly tenor.
Aesop Rock consisted of two (white) rappers and a DJ who poked fun at themselves and were definitely the more entertaining of the two acts. They freely admitted they were aping the Beastie Boys (to the point of releasing an album called Sabotage). Still, it was a bit much for the Cal students, who stared at the rappers as though they were trying to figure out a calculus problem set. They were content to crowd-surf and sing along to Yellowcard. - Monya De
Yellowcard plays the Vans Warped Tour July 1 at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View.