As I walked across the Massachusetts Avenue bridge Wednesday evening en route to the Middle East in Cambridge, the sun was beginning to set. The sky was illuminated in a swatch of colors that besieged me: as I stared out into the unknown, I felt as if I was looking into Monet’s Water Lilies. The spectacular hues of periwinkles, pinks, and soft blues struck me with such awe, that I couldn’t help but think that maybe this was a sign. A sign, that is, that whatever lie ahead of me musically, on the either side of this bridge, was sure to be just as delightful as this view. My premonition — or maybe intuition? — did not fail me. New York’s Bishop Allen, named after the Central Square street that stretches parallel to Mass Ave when two of its members attended Harvard managed to melt my brain and heart with adorable, energetic indie-rock love.
The night accommodated a long list of opening groups, and it was a mixed bag. The first band, the Dazies, had a strange-yet-enticing sound. While the bassist and guitarist had perfectly manicured “metal hair,” they exuded a melody that managed to meld alternative styling of Jane’s Addiction with a nod to classic rock via Tom Petty. Not only were their guitar riffs reminiscent of Damn The Torpedoes, but the vocalist had a voice unequivocally similar to Tom himself.
Next came the clean-cut quartet bearing the name Stephen Konrads and The Eternals. The group’s mellifluous tunes were delectable. At times, I found myself lost in the innocent, harmonic nature of the sound — and enraptured, I felt like my ears were hearing the equivalent to a perfect serving of caramel mousse. Chin, chin.
After standing for a few hours at this point, the crowd was beginning to get a bit antsy for the headlining act. I could sense that legs were beginning to cramp. Audience members were collectively shifting their feet back and forth— one to the other; patiently waiting to see what would be next. The enthusiasm was slowly fading away. Then in what would seem to be a cruel choice by the venue, a one-man band known as Dama took the stage. Although, Dama himself is an extraordinary musician, his overly-sensitive and sleep-inducing music was not what anyone in the audience needed at this point in the night. Enter further fading of enthusiasm here.
But, alas, Bishop Allen finally took the stage, and was almost eery, knowing that just one block over, on Bishop Allen Drive, Justin Rice and Christian Rudder began the execution of pure, symphonic genius a decade earlier. They hinted at their roots and celebrated the beginning of their tour, here at the Middle East; a venue the group played many times in the past. All of the waiting seemed inconsequential as soon as they broke into their first song of the evening — “Start Again,” the first track off their new record Lights Out! (off Dead Oceans).
I was right in the front, and to the left of me, a group of Aussies began to dance as if their life depended on it. To my right, low and behold, my friend Jamie was doing the same. I peered behind me, and the same jovial spirit had trickled back to even the furthest outskirts of the house.
When you listen to Bishop Allen’s music at home, there is a low-key, cutesy vibe — and there were tons of that at this show. Especially when Darby Nowatka, female vocalist, keyboardist, and Rice’s wife, closed the show with the song “Shadow.”
It turns out, however, that Bishop Allen at times manifests itself on the stage in true punk rock glory (a fact actually unsurprising given that the founding members were in a hardcore band during their collegiate days). This sound, however, is something that does not transfer over to the group’s studio recordings. There is an almost raw edge to their live sound that elicits pure, unabashed mayhem. It’s, pardon my French, fucking awesome (and refreshing). At times, I was, with most of the audience jumping up and down, with not a care in the world, perfectly in sync with Rice, as the band played old and new tracks like “Middle Management” and “Good Talk.”
With all of this in mind, my favorite part of the set, hands down, was when Bishop Allen played a song off their new record, Skeleton Key. Like my pink sunset, the stage became emblazoned with a similar chroma, and a sense of euphoria washed over me as the funky track played on. The words of the song allude to the possibilities of “setting us all free” with a skeleton key. Call it ironic or convenient, but there was a mystical element to the bands nonchalance. They welcomed a paradox of calm and chaos that even for an hour, really made me feel like I had been set free.