Courier Mail Spiegeltent, Tuesday September 18
As we leave the Spiegeltent, my girlfriend turn to me and says, “That was awesome — thank you for finally bringing me to a show where the vocalist could actually sing.”
I guess there is only so much shambolic pop-rock and noise/punk gigs a person can take, and (though I hadn’t noticed) it has been a while since we’ve been to a show like this — where circle pits would be frowned upon and where you don’t need to pack two sets of plugs into your eardrums to avoid tinnitus.
I’m talking about Nada Surf, the journeymen alt-rock trio from New York who’ve returned to Australia for the first time in nearly a decade. They’re well-known — by those who grew up in the ’90s — for writing a very popular high-school rock anthem, a song that continually dogs them. Consisting of vocalist/guitarist Matthew Caws, bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot, the band last toured Australia way back in 2003, just after they released an album that Pitchfork hated but I loved — Let Go. It’s still one of my favourite records to this day.
I was fortunate enough to see them back then. They played an excellent set to a half-filled Zoo. Back then, their profile was quite low, but it’s clear that in the intermittent years (and four well-received records later), the band’s popularity has increased dramatically. Tonight’s show is sold out.
The Spiegeltent is a beautiful place to play. The circular room adorned with mirrors and coloured glass is a kaleidoscope. The stage is only slightly elevated, meaning the crowd can get quite close to the band, giving the whole place a sense of intimacy. The clock ticks just past 7:20 pm, and Nada Surf emerge from behind a curtain at the rear of the tent complete with an extra guitarist in tow.
Caws exchanges some brief platitudes with the crowd, noting that it has indeed been too long between drinks, and they immediately kick off into Clear Eyed Clouded Mind, the opening track off their latest record The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy.
They seem uncharacteristically loud when compared to their recent recorded material. It’s not overbearing and the extra bit of volume is welcome – the songs flow out with that added bit of punch. The addition of an extra touring guitarist, Doug Gillard — known for his work with indie rock icons Guided By Voices — proves a boon and allows Caws to give the crowd his full attention (and also his full arsenal of poor, yet wholesome humour).
The band wind their way through a smart and balanced set, placating fans old and new by touching on moments from their now extensive back catalogue. Let Go’s Happy Kid follows Waiting For Something. Reaching back as far as 1996’s The Proximity Effect, Nada Surf treat older fans with performances of 80 Windows and Amateur, while still playing enough of their newer material, such as the existential ballad See These Bones from Lucky, satisfying more recent converts.
There a number of highlights. What’s Your Secret from The Weight Is a Gift is powerful lesson in how to write catchy pop numbers, whereas the Killian’s Red (a song hastily added to the set to placate some arseholes who shouted for it throughout the entire performance*) is immense. During this number, bassist Lorca temporary leaves the stage, bass in tow, and performs most of the song from somewhere out the back, only returning as Caws begins the songs a chaotic, almost malevolent, noisy conclusion, drawing feedback from his amp like one drawing water from a bath.
The band acknowledges their prevailing interest in Australian music. Caws namechecks the likes of The Scientists and The Lime Spiders as bands that hold special places in their hearts. And, in a tip of the hat to Brisbane’s musical legacy, they follow Amateur with a sublime cover of The Go-Betweens’ Love Goes On, a song they recorded for their 2010 covers record If I Had A Hi-Fi. It’s an endearing gesture and underscores why the band is so likeable.
After a rousing, yet one-song short encore, in which Caws leads the audience in a call and response version of Blankest Year, the group are forced to retire from the stage to make way for some kind of circus performance [La Soirée, incidentally — Ed.]. It’s all over much too soon for my liking, but I learn later that Caws performed acoustically for another two hours outside in the bar area, playing songs such as Blizzard of 77 and Inside Of Love and taking requests from those who stuck around.
Nada Surf are a good band, comfortable with their brand of popular rock. They seem to have shaken the stigma of that “one-hit wonder” from the ’90s (‘that song” doesn’t even get a look-in during the main performance). I hope they continue to get such a good reception across the rest of the country — it might encourage them to come back a bit sooner.
*A note to arseholes: if there is one thing I absolutely hate at gigs, it’s people continually requesting songs. It not only is disrespectful to the band, but also the audience as well. To the dudes who kept yelling out for for Killian’s Red — the band are not your own personal jukebox. Look the fucking song up on YouTube later, for God’s sake.
NADA SURF played at the Spiegeltent on 18 Sep, 2012, as part of Brisbane Festival.
DARRAGH MURRAY is a Brisbane music writer with a passion for supporting the local music scene. He also volunteers as an announcer at local community radio station 4ZzZ FM.