A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a friend about the live concert experience. She said she didn’t understand it, much less saw the point in it. After all, you could just as easily pop in a CD of the person’s / band’s music to listen to it, you didn’t need to watch them playing it. I disagreed of course, and one of the reasons I did so was because of what musicians like Michael Rosenberg do on stage – essentially, the parts that aren’t so much playing music, but that go along with it.
For this concert on Wednesday, July 10 at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre, we started out with Stu Larsen, an Australian singer-songwriter who apparently is quite good friends with Michael. They’ve known one another for a few years and have been touring together off and on for the last 2 to 3 years. They’d also just come off a horrendous week or so in Europe. In Dublin, they’d had their cameras nicked and after that, in Brussels, they’d had their laptops stolen. As Stu said, they had hopes of Canada. He needn’t have worried – the audience had a great deal of appreciation for him after every one of the seven songs of his set. The whoops after mentioning Australia or Sydney’s King Street confused him a bit – not that many Aussies in the house, we’d established that, so why was the audience so borderline sycophantic? That’s not for me to figure out, I’m here for the music. Stu Larsen has a pleasant enough voice, a bit too reliant on falsetto for the first few songs (somewhere between mildly to somewhat annoying to my ears) to which he returns later in his set as well. He introduces every song with an anecdote and/or back story and he has an easy and relaxed manner with the audience. He covers Coldplay’s “Fix You” – probably in the same key, but it sounds higher because Stu’s voice is higher than Chris Martin’s. I observe some of the menfolk in the audience (the “Plus Ones”) getting bored within the first 15 or 20 minutes – I do see quite a few looking at their smartphones, as if willing a message to arrive (or perhaps some actually did). To some degree, the introductions seem a bit superfluous – his songs actually do tell the story but more information does provide context, as in the case of “King Street” – a song inspired by watching people with money spend it and those without begging for it during the course of an afternoon in a Sydney coffee shop. But in all fairness, listening to a story is much better than having dead air whilst tuning. For the final song, we have the almost ubiquitous accompaniment to the singer-songwriter: the harmonica. I think Stu said the song was about driving from Adelaide to Perth (through spectacular countryside) and the harmonica’s introduction to the song made it sound bluesy/boxcar train traveller-ish (if you follow my meaning) and interestingly, that does appear to be the theme of the song; the lyrics even mention train travel. His half hour set concludes with enthusiastic applause – a few people in the orchestra even gave a standing ovation. Altogether, I’d say this was a good night.
“Fairytales & Firesides” was the first song Passenger played. Introduced as an old song after he introduced himself to the audience “Hi, I’m Mike” – he’s not that insistent on his stage name. He said he was really, really happy to be back in Vancouver. He enjoyed walking around in the day’s sunshine and thanked Vancouver “for being so, cool”. At the last show, there were quite a number of parents accompanying their children (at least late teens and uni-age, I thought) which led me to the opinion that for some people, he might seem the ideal son-in-law. He just seems so, NICE and how personal his songs can be may lead some to a false sense of intimacy. The song has a swear word – for which Passenger apologised almost immediately after uttering it. Amidst the applause afterwards, a lone voice rang out: “Marry Me”. Pause. “Okay”, he said. As the audience started laughing he added “I can’t help think we’re rushing things”. This is a prime example of why a live experience enriches one’s own experience of the music: yes, there are stories, context, but having a good rapport with the audience, engaging with them, having fun with them, being witty and funny, and rolling with the punches…it’s a great synergy when artist(s) and audience just work, and seeing Passenger in Vancouver now for the third time, it obviously works. A CD just can’t provide that.
He talked about festivals in advance of the next song, how there’s really no chance for storytelling, more like pretending you’re Bon Jovi (his analogy) – which he just shook his head at, saying that he’s so not. Also, that so many people are experiencing life through recording it on their smartphones, not seeing things first-hand. The song “Life’s for the Living” addresses just that – about living in the moment “not what you’re going to do tomorrow or what you didn’t do yesterday….yay, anxiety.” Living in the moment is important and he asks everyone in the theatre to just please do that, clap, sing along, just don’t see it through your phone viewer. People do: they clap, they’re encouraged to sing along during the song – which they do as well and there’s great applause at the end of it.
Although ostensibly still touring “All the Little Lights” from 2012, new songs have been germinating and set down in that time. Such a new one “Haven’t found her yet” came into the set here, and it is very new – he even started it off incorrectly (not that the audience cared or noticed and everyone, including the artist, had a bit of a chuckle over it). For it, he unplugged his guitar and visits each side of the stage and sings without the assistance of a microphone for a good chunk of the lovely song and near the end just cruises in behind it to finish the song off. The audience likes it a treat.
“Caravan”, the audience learns, is about the period of euphoria after breaking up with someone. The approx. 2 weeks of celebration, drinking, until you realise it was the worst mistake of your life. He encourages the audience to join in for the whistly bits (determined to be f***ing horrible). When someone sneezes, it reminds him of a time he played in an old theatre like this in Australia and people were as behaved as they would be at a symphony and a girl had to sneeze and she looked SO mortified even without the ‘looks’ of people around her. In summation: sneezing not discouraged, whistling, perhaps rather not. This song frequently segues into Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” and he does so tonight. It’s that same haunting cover that gave me shivers the last time I heard him do it. I think the audience feels a similar way – you could hear a pin drop in the sold-out theatre (but for some occasional whispering behind me and somebody’s phone going off – awkward.). The ‘moment’ was gone but by the last third of the song, the volume and tempo increased and the audience clapped along before it ended on a quiet note. I do appreciate how he makes the song his own and manages to bring it into the 21st century with the same minimalist tools S&G used: guitar and vocals.
Before the next song is launched, he is given a present from a young woman in house left: a package of bacon gumballs. The audience titters, he doesn’t get it. North America’s novelty craze of bacon-flavoured products is not something that has crossed onto his radar whilst touring. He hasn’t missed much, but it does make me wonder how removed a person is from ‘things’ during the recording and touring process (in the case of “All the Little Lights”, recorded in Australia). Back to the show, he introduces the next song with “stand up if you hate the same things I do” – it appears they do. The gumballs get inserted lyrically as do pauses, interjections, whoops, and lots and lots of singing.
You could hear pins drop in the theatre for “Patient Love”. It could be a catchy one for radio (not that my station would play it) and the audience is invited to sing the chorus along with him – when the song segues into Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” I’m guessing many a female in the theatre is hopeful. Turns out I don’t hate the song when he sings it – after a verse and a couple of choruses (inasmuch as the song has them), this then segues into “Let Her Go”. Audience keeps singing (at least in the orchestra, the mezzanine is a little more reserved). Lovely singing by all – (sneezes are an in-joke by this time) at the end of it he seems genuinely touched, with hand on heart, borderline speechless. He shares that he wrote this song in Australia in 45 minutes after a horrible gig. He was missing home, including the ex-girlfriend who inspired so many of his songs, this one to “add to the pile”. He also mentions how soul-destroying busking can feel. You’re pouring your hear t out on the street and no one pays the slightest bit of attention, but you carry on. He dedicates “27” to everyone in the house trying to follow their dreams in spite of all the people around them telling them to get a normal job. Probably still a bit emotional, he encourages everyone to stand up and reassures the dreamers “sometimes dreams come true – never did I imagine being able to sing these songs in front of people who give a shit”. This song is about exactly that and there’s a lot of his personal experience in it.
In the silence following, someone yells out “Starling”, to which Mike responds “shit”. More people clamour for it, he asks the girl’s name and dedicates the song to her (Lauren – it’s her favourite) – applause, applause “Don’t clap yet!”, he says, he warns. He hadn’t played it in years, there’s a false start, a verse or two before he abandons the attempt. Instead, he invites Stu Larsen to sing with him and they sing a song called “Heart’s on Fire” together – 1 guitar, 2 voices. I can see a number of flashes on phones and cameras but very few people recording it. Stu sings harmony for the chorus which I am guessing is only a third above the melody line, not a fleshed-out part, per se. They continue in this fashion (the falsetto makes its inevitable return), the audience claps along for the chorus. For the rest of it, you could hear pins drop again – perhaps the audience was a little too quiet for them, they are soon invited to sing along for the chorus that repeats to the end, which is basically a repeat of the title. Just a lovely, lovely song.
“Scare Away the Dark” is another new one, we are told, and has only been played a couple of times. The sentiment of living in the moment inhabits it, but also to live and love to its fullest. Don’t do stuff because it’s what something else thinks you should do. Get out there “Feel like you still have a choice” people sing along when their bit is taught them. It would be a perfect concert ender if Passenger were wont to leave the stage with an audience singing as he makes his exit until the lights came on. I don’t know that he would keep an audience hanging like that. Instead, he finishes it properly and says “thank you” before exiting to the wings.
At this point, he’s played for a good solid hour. 90 seconds or so of really loud hooting, whistling, clapping follows before he returns to the stage for a couple of songs. The audience is given a choice – a Neil Young song or a new Passenger song. Audience appears to vote Passenger, but he does a Neil Young sounding song I don’t recognise (not surprising). My guess at its title would be “Helpless”, but don’t quote me. This is followed by “Whispers” amid catcalls of “I love you” from female voices – and one male – and perhaps a “sit on me”. I didn’t quite catch it but it did elicit a head shake from the stage. During the song, I see a “we’re not worthy” arm motion from a couple of people in the second row. And the audience claps along when the volume and tempo pick up.
But wait, there’s more: “Holes” is the final song of the night and it’s the promised opportunity to sing and dance. Virtually everyone is on their feet and I’m sure everyone, male or female, who knew the words to the song sang along at full voice – be it the chorus (no need to teach it) or the verse. Tremendous applause at the end and a high compliment from Passenger: “You’ve been f***ing perfect.” – he’s English, swearing’s not uncommon.
I do enjoy Passenger’s music a lot, but I enjoy his live show more. It has candour, honesty, humour, wit, tangents and non-sequiturs, heckles and raw emotion. He may not know about novelty trends, he’s too busy with living his life to the fullest he possibly can, sharing that with his audience, and inspiring people along the way. And when he wants a break from it all, all he’d have to do is shave off the beard because unless he were to play and sing, few people would recognise who the heck he was. But here’s to Passenger not being anonymous and carrying on as he is doing right now. Cheers.