Concert Review: Howler and Frankie Teardrop at Rough Trade: May 13, 2014
Thanks to the good people at Other Music (and they really are pretty cool there – check out my record store review) I made my first pilgrimage to Rough Trade NYC (which is actually in Williamsburg) to see a show, when I found out late yesterday that I’d won tickets to the Howler show, with support from Frankie Teardrop and Modern Rivals. I didn’t make it in time to catch Modern Rivals – described to me by their merch seller as “sounds like Vampire Weekend but a little less rock-y” – but I was well in time for all of Frankie Teardrop, who I hadn’t heard of until that day. Boy am I glad I made it to see that set.
Frankie T – as their good friends in Howler referred to them – came out promptly at 10pm to a sparse crowd of about 30 people, most of whom were still hovering at the bar that runs the length of the floor, stage right. Rough Trade (the performance venue, not the store) is pretty small, even by club standards, somewhere between the sizes of Mercury Lounge (where Howler and Frankie T play tonight) and the nearby Music Hall of Williamsburg. Still, as one of the handful of people focused on the stage I had my pick of where to stand and I took a spot front and center. As the set progressed, people began to fill in around me. Frankie T was engaging and high energy, surely gaining fans who probably had never heard of this Minneapolis band before seeing them live that night. Unusually, the lead singer – Jordan Bleau – stood stage right with the lead guitarist front and center, but you could tell that this was Jordan’s band. At first he seemed a bit comical, in his long blond hair, sunglasses, sweatpants and black high tops (a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain in my opinion) but Bleau was no joke. The band performed with a purpose, Bleau’s vocals ranging from a hard punk sound to a more mellow ’80s-like vibe. Between songs Bleau and the guitarist (sorry I missed his name) bantered with the audience, introducing songs such as “No More Drugs” (“this one goes out to our dead friend”). I haven’t even mentioned bassist Jack Woolsey, the skinniest man I’ve ever seen, who may have been made of rubber with the way his legs moved. Woolsey played the bass really low – literally – never held above the knees and often an inch or two from the ground. Frankie T got a nice applause after each song, playing a solid 35-minute set, before leaving he stage for their good buddies Howler.
One of the nice things about seeing a show at Rough Trade is that between sets you can wander off into the store and browse the seemingly endless record and book selection. With 25 minutes until Howler would take the stage, having this alternative gives Rough Trade a leg up over all other NYC venues. The setup is quite perfect – the performance space is in the back of the store but was built to look and feel like an entirely different location than the store itself. So you get all the benefits of an in-store performance with none of the drawbacks. Luckily, after heading off into the Rough Trade store I bumped into Mr. Frankie Teardrop, Jordan Bleau. He was standing alone and was kind enough to talk to me fora bit (after I of course told him what a great show he just put on). We chatted a little about the band (together for just 10 months, though he’s been playing music his whole life), hockey (during the set he asked the score in the Rangers-Penguins game, laughing that none of the Brooklynites knew; the Rangers won Game 7 FYI), and what he’d do with his one day in NYC, his first time here (Roberta’s). I thanked him for the great show, wished him luck on tour and headed back inside, only to see the rest of the band close to the stage waiting for Howler to come out. Despite being on tour with them they stay on the floor in support of their friends, rather than hang backstage. As you can tell, I like these guys and I’m rooting for them. You can download or stream their EP Tough Guy or their new single “Bling Item” for free at their bandcamp.
Next up was the Howler, a band that I was familiar with from their debut album America Give Up, and is touring in support of their follow-up, World of Joy, just released. Back in 2011, Howler was supposed to be the next big thing. Rough Trade describes them thusly: “They play the kind of fuzzy guitar pop that calls to mind the likes of the Ramones, the Buzzcocks and the Strokes.” Wow. That’s a bold statement, comparisons to three bands that I absolutely love. Throw in the fact that they’re from Minneapolis – a descendant musically of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü – and this is a band that, in theory, should be my dream. Despite that, I’ve only mentioned Howler here once briefly in comparison to Drowners, a similar sounding (i.e. Strokes sounding) band, quoting the Guardian review of America Give Up. They wrote:
Howler’s problem is this: how do you cause a pop cataclysm with your debut album when it already sounds secondhand? Secondhand because, as every piece you will read about the Minneapolis band will mention (it’s impossible to avoid), they sound almost exactly like the Strokes did when their own debut really did cause a pop cataclysm. The production has that same hazy rawness, Jordan Gatesmith’s voice has that insouciant slur, the guitars alternate between fuzz and twang. So the success of America Give Up depends entirely on the quality of the songs, and Howler have enough good ones to remind you of how good the Strokes used to be, rather than make you think how much better the Strokes are than this.
Unfortunately for Howler, the pop cataclysm that was to be never quite happened. Howler (like the Strokes) made it big overseas first (signing with, ironically, Rough Trade); they instantly became a massive hit in Europe. NME named them one of best new bands of 2011. The positive press preceded the 2012 release of America Give Up in the U.S., but in the battle of best new indie rock bands of 2011, Howler easily lost out to a similar sounding act, the Vaccines. Whereas I was listening to the Vaccines debut passionately throughout the summer of 2011, and have seen them live four times already (headlining increasing larger clubs, from Bowery Ballroom to Webster Hall to Terminal 5, and in support of Phoenix on a national arena tour), Howler faded away before they ever made a ripple. It’s amazing to see how the fortunes of these two bands went in entirely different directions, with Howler playing in front of a crowd of at most 60 people at Rough Trade (though I’m sure there will be more at Mercury Lounge tonight). Having seen them live now, its easy to see why.
Howler is a good band. America Give Up has a few songs that I like well enough, and my first listen to World of Joy wasn’t bad either. Performing live though they are both underwhelming and sloppy. Lead singer Jordan Gatesmith can sing, but he has little stage presence. What I want from a band like Howler is to feel like the lead singer is going to leap right off the stage and attack the audience; either that, or bring them right up there on stage with him. Gatesmith was a singer, the vocalist, nothing more. There was no interaction with the crowd and none of the animated movements you see from a Jordan Blaeu or Justin Young (the Vaccines lead, about whom I once wrote “no lead in recent memory has more exemplified the “it” factor than Justin Young”). Similarly, the rest of the band did nothing to impress. I suppose that’s what I’m looking for in a live performance (obviously in addition to good music) – the band to make an impression. With Frankie Teardrop, I couldn’t take my eyes off of the lead or the bassist. With Howler, my gaze and mind wandered. It wasn’t helped by the clumsy breaks between songs and the seeming lack of coordination between the band members. Ultimately, I think that the music itself is actually pretty comparable between the two bands that played last night, but the performances weren’t. Hopefully for Howler it was just a hiccup and their Mercury Lounge show tonight will be better. It wouldn’t surprise me at all.
In the end, thanks to Other Music I was able to enjoy a free night of pretty good live music. One unknown Minneapolis band pleasantly surprised, the other one slightly disappointed. Not exactly the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, but I’m not complaining. As a venue, Rough Trade held its own, though I really need to see it on a night when it is full.