Foals and Surfer Blood at First Avenue, 5/20/13
Photo By Erik Hess
With Surfer Blood and Blondfire
First Avenue, Minneapolis
May 20, 2013
There are a few different ways for musicians to approach the dreaded Monday night show, where typically fans and bands alike are still feeling the effects of the weekend and the obligatory drag of the start of the work week. The first is to play like every show is on a Saturday night, and bring enough energy to your songs that the crowd simply gets swept up in it. The second is to go through the motions, get through the set with little more than is required, and save yourself for the big shows on the weekends when everyone is naturally in a party mood.
Those two techniques were on full display at First Avenue on Monday evening, where the Oxford, England, quintet Foals delivered a dynamic and forceful 90-minute set that completely invigorated the crowd, while Palm Beach, Florida's Surfer Blood gave a listless, tepid performance full of flat new songs that didn't come close to packing the same musical punch as those found on their debut.
When the edgiest thing that takes place during your performance is when guitarist Thomas Fekete draws cat whiskers on singer John Paul Pitts, who then jumps into the crowd to smoke an e-cigarette, you know something is a bit off with the set. It's been well over three years since Surfer Blood released their undeniably catchy and inspired debut album, Astro Coast, and while the group are using their current tour with Foals to get audiences excited about their long-awaited follow-up, Pythons, due out in June, this show sadly won't have too many fans counting the days until its release.
While Surfer Blood's older songs (like "Floating Vibes" and "Take It Easy") certainly have more of a spirited bite than their rather pedestrian newer material, the band seemed to be sleepwalking through their classic stuff as well, not bringing any added energy to a song as naturally massive as "Swim," which again sounded as passionless and stale as their newer songs on offer, like "Gravity" and "Weird Shapes," which Pitts said was written about his stomach.
Photo By Erik Hess
Even when Pitts introduced "Slow Six" as being a "sad fucking song," none of that emotion or anguish was conveyed through the performance, and the track drifted by languidly. The last song of the night did show a bit of promise, though, as Fekete deftly went from keys to guitar while giving "Drinking Problem" some moody sonic texture, while Pitts sat on the amps and played his solo, connecting with the crowd a bit more than he had during their disappointing 45-minute set.
Foals, on the other hand, had no problem forging an immediate relationship with the audience at the Ave, coming on stage to grand, theatrical pre-show music which immediately set the tone that we were in for something special. Guitarist Jimmy Smith came out alone, laying down the staccato riff to "Prelude," which the band (dressed all in black) expanded upon as they eventually joined him. Frontman Yannis Philippakis helped emphatically kick in the track's massive finish, as he danced in time to the booming rhythm while his spirited guitar sounds washed over the crowd.
Foals, who are touring in support of their stellar new album, Holy Fire, were clearly road tested and tight as hell throughout the entire performance, with each crisp, insistent number ringing out pristinely throughout the club. "Hey Minneapolis, what's up?" asked Philippakis straight away at the start of the show. "It's good to be back." And with that, the band launched into the towering "Total Life Forever," and the set truly took off. The track featured a smooth breakdown toward the finish, with just Philippakis's guitar carrying the song forward as the crowd clapped along, before the end of the number truly caught fire.
Photos By Erik Hess
"This is an old one," announced Philippakis, as the band eased their way into the fitful pace of "Olympic Airways," with drummer Jack Bevan standing atop his chair in order to get the crowd clapping in time to the beat. Foals' songs are rather hypnotic and slow-building, drawing you in with their repetitive, insistent hooks, so that when the payoff eventually comes and the track inevitably explodes in euphoric release, you feel that relentless energy coursing through your entire body. Seeing them perform is a very visceral experience, as the magnetic spirit of their massive songs prove to be utterly intoxicating and entirely irresistible.
Smith took to the keys for a pulsing version of "Bad Habit," locking in with full-time keyboardist Edwin Congreave to create a textured sonic tone that pushed the song forward. Bevan and bassist Walter Gervers were set up at the back of the stage, forming the dynamic rhythm section that gave the songs their measured core, while Smith and Philippakis were both prominently situated at the front of the stage, leading the songs into their untamed, adventurous direction. The band had no trouble making the transition from the Entry (where the played two memorable shows in 2008 and '10) to the Mainroom, easily filling up the larger club with their towering, urgent arrangements.
A funky version of "My Number" kept the momentum going strong, while a moody, simmering take on "Milk & Black Spiders" started off a bit slow before gradually blossoming into its grand, elegant finish. The subtle sounds of crashing waves formed the perfect tranquil introduction to the slow-burning majesty of "Spanish Sahara," with the band taking their time building the song's stylish texture, all the while heading assuredly toward the blissful, exultant release that waits at the end of the track's tense sonic journey.
Philippakis jumped into the photo pit and worked his way into the crowd during a fiery take on "Red Socks Pugie," needing to pour a bottle of water over his head to cool down after playing guitar in the heart of the audience. "This song is for the moms, the submarine pilots, the teachers, all over the world," Philippakis said a bit humorously as he introduced a moving, powerful version of "Late Night," which found the band losing themselves in a lengthy bluesy jam, led by Yannis's scorching guitar work.
Photos By Erik Hess
"All right, let's do this Minneapolis. We fly home tomorrow, let's go out on a good fucking note," Philippakis emphatically shouted before leading the band through a tempestuous rendition of "Providence," which again found Yannis heading into the crowd with his guitar, getting the crowd dancing before the track and the audience absolutely erupted toward the end. Philippakis brought out a bass drum for the last song of the main set, joining in with Bevan to form a pounding rhythm at the heart of "Electric Bloom," and the rest of the band built their intense arrangements around that massive beat. Philippakis climbed on top of the speaker stacks, looking for somewhere higher and more challenging to scale, but thought better of it and returned to the stage as the band set the place off.
After a lengthy encore break, Philippakis and Smith returned alone to the stage, with Jimmy settling in behind the keys as Yannis introduced the track, "This is a real cheery number called 'Moon.'" It proved to be a tender, moving rendition, and one that the band hadn't been playing much on this tour. But they quickly did away with their delicate side as the rest of the band joined them for a potent rendition of "Inhaler" which got the crowd dancing/moshing in time to its raucous riffs. "Two Steps, Twice" emphatically closed out the night, with Philippakis making his way throughout the entire club during the song's experimental middle section before returning to the stage as the song euphorically exploded and the set came to a breathless end. Indeed, after Foals were finished with us, this didn't feel like a Monday at all.
Personal Bias: Foals' 2010 Entry set is one of my favorite shows of all time, and while it's tough to match that raw, intense intimacy, this performance clearly found the band in top form.
The Crowd: While I was a bit worried looking out at the sleepy audience during Surfer Blood's set, the crowd thankfully sparked to life during Foals' performance.
Overheard In The Crowd: "That's it, I'm out of here." Said immediately after Pitts announced, "This next song is about my stomach."
Random Notebook Dump: As much as I enjoyed Astro Coast, I'm officially done with Surfer Blood.
Total Life Forever
Milk & Black Spiders
Red Socks Pugie
Two Steps, Twice (Encore)
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