I managed to pluck my way through the crowd at Venue to get a front-row viewpoint for most of Nada Surf’s recent set in Vancouver. I’m not sure if the crowd didn’t notice when the band walked on stage, or if they were just supremely chill on a Tuesday night, but it has been a pretty long time since I was in a room with such an unenthusiastic audience greeting of a band. A little smattering of applause and a few isolated woos could be heard. They started up under calm, blue lights with “Cold To See Clear” off their latest album You Know Who You Are. We all know Nada Surf appropriately became pretty popular with their song of the same name in 1996, but most of their repertoire is quite unlike it. I personally had taken a sabbatical from them until 2005 when their wonderful album The Weight Is A Gift landed in my mailbox. That was on Barsuk Records, and former labelmate/member of Death Cab For Cutie Chris Walla produced it in part. I don’t know how much of a coincidence that is, but I always felt that if you like Death Cab For Cutie, but don’t like weeping constantly, Nada Surf is a pretty good option. Matthew Caws’ voice even has some superficial similarities to Ben Gibbard’s. Anyhow, I really am very fond of them, and was looking forward to what I would see from them tonight.
As the set continued, the mellow crowd pepped up a bit, with clear fans singing to each song, and this seemed to be reflected in the band’s movements on stage. While their physical performance doesn’t showcase anything particularly out of the ordinary, there were a few more guitars held aloft and amp-related feedback sessions the further on we got. They flow so easily from song to song. I was on the same side of the stage as guitarist Doug Gillard, and was able to closely admire his easygoing, talented playing. Following their second tune of the night, “Whose Authority,” played beneath hot red lights, Caws spoke to the audience. “I don’t know where we are in relation to it, but we played a place called Richards and I think it was torn down like the next week. It’s just a bunch of condos now. Does anyone live there now? Anyone here?” Someone in the crowd yelled out about living at the Starfish Room, another well-missed small venue which has been flattened for Yaletown condos, and the band, who probably hadn’t heard of the place before, wondered aloud if that was a room where they actually kept all the starfish. Caws pointed out, “No, that would be too dry… like a venue being called Venue.”
Somewhat hilariously, I had made a note in my review that said ‘power pop indeed,’ not at the time realizing that later, the running joke of the night would emerge as Caws turned to the LED light board that crosses the back of the stage and is often used to display the band’s name or other visuals during the sets. I always liked this about Venue. It makes every show seem high-budget, no matter what stage set-up the bands have brought to town with them. “I’m very excited about these lights here and the things you can say. I would lose my job just trying to think up silly things to say.” Hold on to that thought – we will revisit this later. They got into “The Weight Is A Gift” then, slightly reimagined from the recorded version. Afterwards, Caws spoke of the dedication of some fans they know of who have followed them show to show. Someone in the crowd yelled “I love you!,” as they were readying for the next song. Caws turned around, slightly flustered, and went, “Hold on!” He then thanked openers Prism Tats, who played their first opening slot of the tour with Nada Surf that night. “They seem to be great,” he stated. Someone in the crowd (I think the same guy who yelled I love you) yelled back, “They do seem to be great!” Quick on his feet, later on Caws made up a ditty on the spot about being thankful for everyone being there. He shortly got us all to do a two-step dance along with them to the tune of “Inside of Love,” telling us it would look super cool, at least from on the stage. “I’m asking nicely… but firmly.” The crowd complied happily, step-swaying back and forth for the whole song, mirroring the band.
Caws turned back to the topic of the light board after this. “Can that say anything?,’ he asked out to the guys at the sound/lighting booth near the back of the room. “It can? Can it say ‘indeed’?” The lighting tech quickly complied, and INDEED came up on the board behind the band. Caws looked overjoyed. “If that was on Skymall, I would pay anything.” Through the rest of the night, the techs would flash Indeed up there between songs, if Caws said it, or whenever something slightly amusing was happening. After playing new song “Out of the Dark,” Caws turned to Gillard and asked him, “Is that [guitar part] on the record?” Gillard nodded at him. “It is, it’s quiet,” he said. Caws looked defeated. “Dammit, I was happy with that record.” Caws later noticed his shirt was unbuttoned a little more than usual. He made a horrified face and slyly rebuttoned it. “That’s very unlike me.” They ended the main set with “Clear Eye Clouded Mind,” and then left briefly.
The crowd, alive now, stomped and cheered and clapped to get them back out. The lighting guys blasted bright lights to the beat of the chant of the crowd. As they returned, people yelled for their song “Fruit Fly.” Caws calmed the crowd down and said, “We can’t play “Fruit Fly,” but after, after I say hello to everyone and sign any albums or whatever for people, I will play it for you. It might be really late!,” he added as the audience cheered for this. He thanks a bunch of people, including, “Ian… he’s probably asleep right now. He’s our bus driver.” The encore consisted of “Teenage Dreams,” “Popular” (which I am frankly a bit surprised they played!), “Always Love” (which got a bigger response than I would have expected somehow – though it is one of my favourite songs of theirs), and “Blankest Year.” For the last song, which is a grand one the audience went bananas for, there is a recurring lyric that the lighting techs popped up onto the light board every time the band said it, so quite frequently, emboldened by exclamation points, the phrase Fuck it!!! popped up behind them. As well, Caws asked for audience participation one last time, in that every time he would say those words, he wanted the audience to assume backing-vocal roles and shout it right back at him. They did! Indeed!
They left the stage, shaking hands and passing out picks as they did so, but later returned for an unofficial extra encore in the form of a mellow, acoustic version of “Blizzard of 77.” I don’t know if they ever got around to “Fruit Fly,” but they sure did please their fans.