It’s rare that a rock show satisfies without leaving your ears ringing, but American Football’s First Avenue tour-opener with S. Carey and Aero Flynn on Saturday did just that.
This was many local fans' first opportunity to see American Football since the release of their self-titled debut in 1999. That album has become a cult classic over the last two decades, and the room looked to be stocked with both old fans and recent converts. The enthusiasm for the headliners matched the heightened anticipation, and hands shot up across the floor at climactic moments throughout their set.
There was a sense of musical community onstage. Ben Lester played keyboards with Aero Flynn, then supplied the pedal steel that suffused S. Carey’s set. Sean “S.” Carey himself sat in with American Football for several songs on vibraphone. All three acts have family-tree connections: Carey contributed to both Aero Flynn’s 2015 debut and American Football guitarist Mike Kinsella’s 2016 solo effort under his Owen moniker, The King of Whys.
Following Aero Flynn’s mellow, vocoder-y, low-velocity post-rock with S. Carey’s more naturalistic, cavernous, but still low-velocity post-rock could have lulled the audience into a stupor. There’s a fine line between blissful and boring, after all, and when American Football’s shimmering, polyrhythmic emo is the hardest rocking thing on the bill, you’re getting pretty close to crossing it. But there was just enough contrast between American Football’s ultra-precise, twinkling grooves and the preceding bands' slower, soupier material for the headliners’ entrance to feel like a real event -- no small achievement when American Football’s greatness is so unassuming.
Live, American Football’s rhythm section plays a more prominent role than on their recordings. Steve Lamos’ jazz-informed drumming belied his pre-reunion career as an English professor. He struck a delicate balance between locked-in repetition and crisp fills that prevented the music from losing its sense of emotion to all the odd time signatures.
Nate Kinsella, new to the reunion on bass, stayed faithful to American Football's previous strange approach to that instrument. During their first run, guitarist/vocalist Mike Kinsella covered bass duties, overdubbing in the studio and alternating between bass and guitar live. The bass parts he wrote filled space without getting in the way of the guitar textures that defined the songs. (“Honestly?” is their only song with a conventional, stand-out bass hook.) American Football songs rely on simple patterns with sustained notes, and the dub-like quality of those sparse lines rang out through the Mainroom’s PA in a way they don't on record -- the slow moving tones rumbled through your chest.
The group bravely split their set into two halves, with a five-minute break between and no encore. The first focused on new material from their reunion album, also self-titled, released last October; the second hit all the highlights of the first album. This allowed the new material room to stand on its own merits without comparison to the older, more familiar stuff.
Lamos can’t play trumpet and drums at the same time, so he blew simple lines into a mic and these were looped and layered into washes of texture between the band’s proper songs. The band was tight, but there was a pleasant informality to these moments, to S. Carey’s guest turn at the vibes, and to the modest pick slide Mike Kinsella threw into one of the older songs -- a welcome reminder that this band, a Very Important one for its fans, also has a real streak of deadpan humor. Those loose touches brought to mind the sense of discovery the band must have had the first time around, when they were more or less just a college band (albeit one founded by a former Cap’n Jazz member).
And that feeling might come close to summing up American Football’s enduring appeal. Think of how many short-lived bands on college campuses manage to record an album. Think of how many of those bands write nerdy, intricate songs about feelings. The answer is a whole damn lot. But how many of those bands could reunite almost two decades later and play First Avenue?
American Football’s fans by and large don’t seem too different from the band itself -- I’d wager a couple bucks that close to a third of that audience have been in a band at one point. American Football’s story says you too can create something uncannily beautiful with just the experiences you have at hand. The music critic cliché about everyone who bought the Velvet Underground first album forming a band comes to mind. In fact, my own band’s lead guitarist was at the show. But I lost track of him after S. Carey’s set wrapped up and he pressed forward through the crowd to get a better view.
The crowd: Saw several respectably Brian Posehn-esque beards in the audience.
Critic’s bias: I'm a relatively casual fan. I went to this show without having listened to American Football’s reunion album, and I only really got into their first album a couple months before the new one came out. But still the two-part structure of the set worked for me -- if not for the guy toward the back on the floor who yelled “’Never Meant!’ Play some old shit!” To the band’s credit, I'm now more likely to check the new album out -- not always the case with a reunion.
Random notebook dump: There were some minor, guitar-related technical difficulties toward the beginning of the show. Kinsella and Holmes swapped out their guitars for each song, since each required a different tuning. Kinsella later revealed that the band’s usual guitar tech couldn't make it, and one of First Ave’s staff gamely stepped in, spending the whole show visible at the back of the stage, tuning guitars. He was the night’s MVP.