Like a Death Cab For Cutie for aging hipsters, Nada Surf played a great 90-minute set Tuesday night at the Paradise in Boston. I won’t bore you with the band’s back story. You can read it for yourself here. The place was jammed, and not all the hipsters were aging. Although I’m at the age where I check to make sure there are enough balding and/or graying heads to ensure I’m not the oldest dude in the room.
Nada Surf writes songs about broken hearts and falling-in-love, topics that have been standards since Elvis, The Beatles, and whoever else created the grand pop tradition. They have a song about the pleasure of listening to a record (Beautiful Beat) and about throwing a party after going through a bad time (Blankest Year). Their songs also double as graceful stories, mini-novels that evoke a mood of arrival and departure, of small but life-changing events transpiring in the course of a pop song. Like the narrative music in an Andre Dubus story or the rhythm and precision of a Charles Baxter novel.
The band’s a tight three piece. I’m always impressed when three musicians can bring off live a sound that takes weeks, months, and sometimes years to produce in a studio. Highlights from the show included Do It Again, Happy Kid, and from their CD Lucky released earlier this year, Whose Authority. When they played Inside of Love ( also from Lucky) singer Matthew Caws urged the crowd to sway in time to the song. He said it always invoked a weird effect. So we obliged and he agreed afterward that weirdness was sufficiently achieved.
I dislike a band to engage in between-song banter. It drags the momentum and I really can’t stand when a band retunes their precious gee-tars after every song. Are you listening Built to Spill? Yo La Tengo? Let’s all learn a little something from the Ramones’ breakneck speed and keep your non song intercourse to a mighty count of “One, two, three, four.” But listening to Nada Surf’s asides was different. These guys seem to genuinely enjoy what they do and how they do it. The band likes its own songs and pours this journeyman enthusiasm for playing them live into a seasoned performance. So who am I to assail their stage antics? However, I have a few notes for the bassist: Dreads on an older white guy: so five minutes ago. And smoking on stage? Are you Keith Richards? Until you reach his level of anarchic infamy and death's door shenanigans, try to wait until after the show to light up. Ditto the guest singer, some girl brought up to sing backup for a song. Why the cigarette? Believe me, it didn't look as cool as you thought.
My earlier comparison to Death Cab seems apt. Both bands share a label, Barsuk Records, and producer John Goodmanson. Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla worked on the new album. The expansive, orchestral rock flourishes that can drag a good Death Cab song into Emo McDirgeville stay light to the touch for Nada Surf, giving just the right depth to their delightful pop chord progressions. Live, the Surf’s songs are more ragged, but come across with a playful grace and lonesome wistfulness. The men of Nada Surf are showmen in their sloppy, predetermined way. Watching them is like seeing a sober, refined Replacements. Nirvana if they had relocated to Nantucket before recording Bleach. Or the Jonas Brothers on the cusp of rehab.
It was nice to see the Paradise full to capacity. I guess I’ve been dragging Liz to bands that are only mildly popular. Swervedriver, Meat Beat Manifesto, Sparklehorse anyone? But watching a band in a full room is like going to see an interactive version of your favorite movie where everybody gets to talk along with the characters and shout their appreciation.
Here's the band doing Happy Kid (shot by Liz):