Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Live Review: For Thrice, Variety Doesn’t Equal Versatility

By Andrew David King
Tue, Jun 8, 2010 at 4:18 PM

The Irvine-based quartet Thrice has charted more musical territory since its inception in 1998 than most bands do in their entire careers. From the garage-band punk riffs of 2000’s Identity Crisis to the lofty, groove-based jams of Beggars, its most recent release, this charity-supporting, Thomas-Pynchon-referencing, sonnet-incorporating band has dabbled in elements both abstract and unknown to most mainstream music listeners.

But if there’s anything that Thrice proved last Thursday when it played the inaugural concert of its summer 2010 tour at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, it’s that the diversity of its songs doesn’t exactly satisfy fans — or ensure a smooth concert.

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The dilemma facing Thrice’s show was an ironic one: Where the opening bands struggled, Thrice succeeded; where the bands succeeded, Thrice struggled. Long Beach trio We Barbarians hit the stage first, pounding out semi-clichéd indie tunes to modest applause. Brooklyn-based outfit Kevin Devine & the Goddamn Band followed, and managed to gather more of the crowd’s attention with witty lyrics and Devine’s range of vocal ability to enhance them. The interest they snagged eventually waned, however, because their songs repeatedly used the formula of starting out quietly and building to a crescendo.

That being said, although the music of We Barbarians and Kevin Devine & the Goddamn Band was less original and skillful than Thrice, both had several key aspects over the headliner: they were more personable in their demeanor, more consistent in their song choice — even if Kevin Devine was repetitive — and, most importantly, they were conscious of their audience, acting as is appropriate at an actual show with actual fans.

From a certain perspective, Thrice’s performance was perfect. The band made no technical errors, was polite, and played for a solid two hours. But from the view of a dedicated fan hoping for a laundry list of favorites from years past, Thrice’s show mostly seemed like listening to the band play a live version of its own promotional mix-tape. A few singles were thrown in from older, classic albums, but the band’s newest album, 2009’s Beggars, predominated, including the single “In Exile.” At times, the band did concede some classic tunes, including “To Awake and Avenge the Dead” from The Illusion of Safety, a crowd favorite.

Perhaps it’s the enigma around Thrice that endears them to its legion of dedicated fans such as those at Thursday’s show. The band’s frequent incorporation of intellectual, philosophical, religious, and conceptual elements into its music offers a level of depth not often found in many mainstream artists. An example would be the Alchemy Index albums, a series of records each themed around one of four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. Post-hardcore songs with lyrics pulled straight from the Gospels, as in “Of Dust and Nations” from the 2005 album Vheissu, are hard to come by, as are bands that donate a portion of the proceeds of each new album to a charity, like Thrice does (including Dave Eggers’ San Francisco literacy foundation 826 Valencia). Whether they’re mixing metal, blues, alternative rock, or even the folk rock that lead singer Dustin Kensrue has tried his hand at in his independent side project, the band members have a level of originality that’s unusually high.

But when more than a decade’s worth of distinct songs are presented non-linearly, there’s a feeling of choppiness that can’t quite be overcome despite the impressiveness of the material. In the end, the combination of rough-and-tumble hardcore elements in mosh-pit-inducing songs like “Hold Fast Hope,” “Firebreather,” and “The Earth Will Shake” with the slow, relaxed vibes of “Circles” resulted in a show that, while entertaining, was jumbled and interrupted overall. The powerful ideas behind Thrice’s music that make for mind-blowing listening in private didn’t equate to a superb live concert.

Whether or not Thrice is at the point in its career where variety no longer showcases a lack of focus but a range of talents can’t be said with certainty. It seems pointless, however, to speak in hypothetical terms when so many concertgoers in Thursday night’s crowd were so obviously chanting for the fast, loud, politically-charged anthems of the 2003 release The Artist and the Ambulance only to be met with another mellow song from Beggars. The crowd of two hundred cheered weakly for an encore after the sixteen-song set — and the three songs they got in return was no change of pace from the previous two hours of music Thrice churned out. The band began the show with “Doublespeak” and ended on “Beggars,” both tracks from the new album.

Thrice has often been labeled an experimental band by fans and critics alike, and Thursday night’s performance came off that way: an experiment. But despite the set list’s shortcomings, the band’s massive amount of talent, energy, and poetic skill remained apparent, if not slightly obscured.

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