Photographs by Randall Vasquez.
Just a couple of days after sitting cozy next to girlfriend Lena Dunham at the glitzy Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, Jack Antonoff stopped by Toronto with his new project Bleachers. The New Jersey indie pop band made their debut headlining performance in Canada on Wednesday night, touring their debut album Strange Desire. Of course, Antonoff is no stranger to the city or the stage, finding success as the guitarist of fun. and gaining earlier experience with his work in Steel Train.
Old bands aside, it was clear from his Bleachers performance that Antonoff knows how to go for gusto. Much of Bleachers’ material is in your face. It’s not asking the question of if you’re going to have a good time; that much is expected.
While things started on the shakier side with Antonoff’s voice struggling to find sure footing on “Wild Heart”, the four-piece band behind him powered through the problems. With a sound largely coloured by 80’s electronic throwbacks (seriously, someone’s been watching John Hughes movies,) things were hooky and upbeat – two drummers hard at work to get bodies moving.
As with any New Jersey band, references to Bruce Springsteen seem inevitable. A sax solo on “You’re Still a Mystery” only cementing the comparison.
It was high energy, fun, and altogether obvious. You knew when the chorus was coming in. You could predict when the beat would drop. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – just be aware that it’s obvious pop meant to shake the dance floor.
There are problems in going straight for the entertaining jugular, however. A cover of The Mountain Goats’ stomping 2005 single “This Year” was a very tangible example of that. Even without Antonoff’s preface of the song’s meaning (its lyrics dealing with vocalist John Darnielle’s abusive childhood) and how removed he is from that experience himself, you’d have been able to tell instantly. Antonoff doesn’t quite grasp the nuances of emotional delivery, making the entire thing disconnected and sterile. Again, this project lies firmly on the side of “fun” rather than intelligent.
And fun was had – by both the band and the crowd. Antonoff made it a point to thank the audience for their enthusiasm and warm reception. “I always so badly wanted for people to come to the shows,” he stated, explaining that after 15 years of touring he was finally seeing the reception he was hoping for. It was a warm one. People were singing along; fists were raised in the air; and there was a definite sense of a connection between the five musicians on stage and the all-ages crowd beneath them.
As Bleachers inevitably ended their three-song encore and hour-long set with their shout-along debut single “I Wanna Get Better”, it would seem Antonoff is on track for something there… especially if better directly correlates to bigger. After all, these are big pop tunes designed to please crowds that want to forget their troubles for just a little while, throw their hands in the air, and scream along. Occasionally that’s really all you need.