The Fratellis - Eyes Wide, Tongue Tied

The Fratellis + Grizfolk @ Commodore Ballroom – September 30th 2015

A sparsely filled Commodore Ballroom greeted me upon my arrival on Wednesday, September 30. It got a bit more disconcerting when I saw that access to the mezzanine was closed on both sides – a full house was definitely not expected for tonight’s gig, and I got there just when the opener was scheduled to begin – it seems like all of us are a tiny bit delayed this evening.

Grizfolk are a California-based five-piece (drums, keys, bass, lead & rhythm guitar) with an odd name and an indie rock sound. Approximately two years old, they are signed to Virgin Records and are making the rounds as openers: for Bastille on their first major European and North American tour, a scheduled return to Vancouver in support of X Ambassadors in November, and tonight’s gig in support of The Fratellis. Appearance-wise they sport a variety of styles of beardedness (from clean-shaven to trucker-worthy), and fit in with Vancouver’s current hipster vibe quite well.

And how do they sound? Good. Melodic rock, radio-friendly, making use of the keyboards on intros and bridges, but mostly guitar-driven. All have microphones propped in front of them, but only lead guitar, bass, and keys seem to do have backing vocal parts, and to me the drummer just looked like he enjoys singing along, so they gave him a mic (but, I could be wrong). Speaking of singing along, their songs are furnished with numerous opportunities for audience participation when a chorus features oh-oh-ohs or a great beat to clap along to. Their second song had it (“Hymnals”, I believe) and by the end of their third song the audience had progressed from foot tapping and head nods to being won over a bit, as cheers and whistles around the room were heard (later they would be taught the oh oh, my my bit for “The Ripple”). The singer invited the members of the audience sitting at the tables and chairs off the edges of the dance floor to join the folks in the middle – and a few of them complied.

Their fifth song is the current single “Troublemaker” for which the lead singer’s guitar was absent resulting in a song propelled more by the rhythm section where you could actually hear the drums, particularly the nifty beats on the floor tom. Live it sounded a tiny bit stripped down and rawer, and the audience participation was really good for it. They also did a cover of David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” which they totally owned. It took me a bit to place it – I was wondering why I knew the words already having never heard of these guys before – good job, Grizfolk!

The final song was probably the most poppy of the lot, but vocally didn’t seem to sit quite right. The entries were jerky and jarring, lacking much of the finesse previously displayed, and, I don’t know, could be one of those songs that sometimes can make the voice stronger, or put excessive strain on it. Maybe it’s an off-night or maybe it’s the key, or maybe it was all intentional, all I’m saying is that I heard a whole lot of ‘somethings’.

Over the course of the 30-minute/8 song set, I can say I liked them. They put on a good performance, made genuine efforts to get their audience involved, flattered the city a bit, had fun, and musically didn’t challenge the brains and ears too much. I’d like to see how they get on, but since X Ambassadors’ lyrical prowess turned me off completely with the drivel that is: “And I said hey Hey, hey, hey Living like we’re renegades Hey, hey, hey Hey, hey, hey Living like we’re renegades Renegades, renegades”, I will not be in attendance.

For the downtime between sets, I don’t know if was the house tech or The Fratellis’ own sound tech, but after treating the few hundred people to great tunes by The Killers, Stone Roses, and Stereophonics, I would like to declare: I adore you and thank you! I reached that conclusion after only the second note of “Dakota”. Another declaration: “Stereophonics, I really miss you. My mind, soul, and body could use another night of your perfection. Please visit on your next tour. Diolch.”

Going north now: Glasgow. After the house lights have gone out, the sounds of Jacques Offenbach’s “Can Can Song” come through the speakers; there was clapping, there was cheering, and a little bit of wtf on peoples’ faces, but The Fratellis coming on stage at the end, and singer/guitarist Jon wearing what looks like a wider-brimmed Panama hat conducting the song to its conclusion sorted out any inklings of confusion.

Getting right down to business, without preambles or welcomes, they begin with “Henrietta” and I’m already hoping it’s not going to be an assembly line of tunes. It sounds good. It sounds familiar. It also sounds a tiny bit mechanical, hence my worry. We barrel straight into “Baby Don’t You Lie to Me” without pause and I like it so very much. It has this quick-quick tempo alternating with a vibe like the kind a full cast pulling-out-all-the-stops number from the likes of “Grease” or “Rocky Horror Picture Show” has. And it doesn’t stop there because it’s a lightning quick build to the end.

“Seven Nights Seven Days” is next and I already appreciate the mix of the new and the old – what’s weird is there’s no keyboard on stage that I can see (and I’m trying to see what’s happening on stage through a number of heads) and it’s a prominent musical part in this song as well as the previous one (and a couple of others later on) – I just have to believe, it’s too important to be canned! In true Fratellis style, they disguise sometimes depressing lyrics in a candied wrapper of frenetic tempo and peppy instrumentation.

Jon addresses the audience after this third song mentioning how this show will have “the old songs and new ones too” – don’t forget, they’ve been recording and touring for a decade now – and how the next one “is the first one you probably heard”. It’s “Flathead” and the people just eat it up. Me, I mourn the harmonies. They are lost as the band blast through the song, but for the guitar noodling at the end. The only reason I care is that they are my favourite parts to the song. I am in the minority, no one else cares and are busy singing along. Good for them!

Next was “Desperate Guy” and in this song Jon’s voice reminds me so much of Mikel Jollett’s from TATE (The Airborne Toxic Event). I’m really liking the similarities and the song moves along at a nice little pace, giving the band and the dancers a bit of a chance to recover from “Flathead”.

In “She’s Not Gone Yet But She’s Leaving”, I love the harder blues-rock edge to the guitar riffs. There are lots and lots of heads nodding to the beat throughout The Commodore and appreciative cheers for the instrumental part in the middle of the song.

My notes are a little indecipherable for the next song, but I can make out “vintage Fratelli tempo changes” – which sounds about right. It was that kind of quirkiness that really drew me to Costello Music back in the day. They really don’t sound like many other people out there and never have. But this show. It seems a lot of fun, but soulless. Literally, people are enjoying themselves, the cheers and participation are proof of that, but I just get the sense that the less-than-sobers and the people on the recreational drugs are probably enjoying the show the most. At this point, Jon even said he “didn’t know you were here until just now” – there’s definite holding back on the audience side, but it really isn’t just them. A live performance is give and take, and at this point, those lines of energy/appreciation are not at optimum.

Talking to the audience just now made Jon lose his place, but finds it again without delay. Singalong fun for the audience with “Whistle For The Choir”. If anyone tried whistling, I give them full marks for the attempt. The dance floor is probably at half at this point. We continue with “Little by Little” (okay, not its actual name), stylistically one of the few songs that flirts on the borders of country music.

I don’t yet have the new album, so not 100% sure of the next one – my best guess is “Me and the Devil” because of how heavily the invisible piano is featured – I honestly hope it’s just because of my sightlines. It’d have been faster live than on the recording, and the volume on the instruments was much higher on this song than earlier in the show so the words were really hard to make out, but I’m going to go with “Me and the Devil”. Whatever it was, apart from that imbalance, I really liked it; it had a wonderful energy to it.

Jon tells the audience the next song was one of the first they’d ever played together and as of this song, The Fratellis’ set shifts into a higher gear: energy, volume, intensity, vroom! The song is an even more rocked up “Got Ma Nuts From A Hippy”, but then, when they take the volume and the tempo down to virtually vocals only, the audience offers much in the way of cheering.

When much of the guitar line reminds me of “Revolution” by The Beatles, then I know it’s time for “Acid Jazz Singer”. During this song I can feel the floor heave from the audience dancing and they pretty much go into overdrive with cheering as the last note of the song is held an extra 10 seconds or so by Jon’s guitar before going on to another new song: “Thief” and it was effing awesome! Searing instrumental parts with a solid foundation in the rhythm department. Back and forth with the audience with a guitar lick and rests in the music that lend themselves to people shouting “woo” adding musical punctuation. Love it!

“Everybody Knows You Cried Last Night” – if I’m honest, this song took me a bit to recognise because it has changed a bit over the years. Tonight it sounded more rock, and I don’t remember if it sounded quite like that the last time they did it when they were in Vancouver, playing the Venue. Granted, the Costello Music days are long over and it’s not like they were songs wafting about innocence and such. The extended ending did the crowd good and they continued bouncing about.

A little ’70s funk in the guitar goes a long way in “Dogtown” combined with a tiny bit of “Come Together” by The Beatles. Whether the homage is deliberate or no, it’s a cool tune. The instrumental bridge seems made for an audience to sing na-na-na-na along to.

I am in love with the drum part of “Halloween Blues” – I love that I could hear it properly and the guitar bits in the middle are so good. Again, a bit of a blistering pace but between the drums and a lyrical repetition in the style of “Imposters” helped place the song and it was fantastic.

Getting a sense of a final push to the end at “We Need Medicine” – again, it took me a bit because when you’re accustomed to hearing a pristine studio version and then to hear it live – with all of the fun stuff that entails on a technical level, but to do that musically as well, songs are literally being translated.

Audience favourite “Baby Fratelli” came next and they sang along to the chorus and it’s full of the ‘charm’ that made Costello Music stand apart from most other music that was around at the time – and it’s vintage Fratellis: loud bits, quiet bits, jumping bits, it’s got it all and it’s great fun.

Unbid clapping by the audience accompanies the introduction to “Until She Saves My Soul” and the assembly line sense is back as I note a definite ‘express train’ heading straight to an encore. This will go down as a mighty odd show in my book (perhaps for The Fratellis as well) – maybe it’s because of where it’s placed in the setlist, but combined with the overall vibe thus far, it seems like the band is trying to find the last dregs of ‘something’ from the audience. It’s not like anybody knew what they’d be getting from the house. That’s not to say people didn’t cheer and clap loudly and appreciatively when the band left the stage just ahead of the encore…It. Was. Just. Off.

After a mere two minutes, the band were back with another Costello Music favourite: “For The Girl”, with a country-fied treatment and I’m impressed Jon’s hat hasn’t moved. I’ve seen perspiration drip to the stage, but the hat has not moved in the 75 minutes or so he’s been on stage. Crowd dances. Next came “Chelsea Dagger”, the crowd bounces. Not going to lie, ever since I was notified I was doing this show, this is the song that’s been on auto-repeat in my head. The audience sings to the doo-do-doos and really enjoy the punctuating woos. Before the final song, Jon says goodbye and “such a pleasure playing for you this evening…see you real soon”. I hope that’s true on both counts. The old Dion song “Runaround Sue” closes the night, and there are plenty of barely-verbals for people to sing along to and it’s had a 21st-century, Fratellis-style upgrade: double time, great percussive and guitar parts, and tricked out with rock and some other good stuff.

This was a hard one to do for two reasons: the setlist was a nightmare to get right, for one The Fratellis are not doing the same gig every night and it keeps changing, which is great because it keeps things interesting for the band as they have a lot of material to pull from, and any fans following them from show to show won’t know what’s coming next, and for the other, because the person who posted a setlist of tonight’s show at the Commodore Ballroom obviously wasn’t at the same show. The other big reason for the difficulty is the weird vibe this entire evening had – it really was as though The Fratellis were trying to get a weekend response from this mid-week Vancouver crowd over the 90-ish minutes of their set. Vancouver audiences are famous for their reticence and reserve, but usually the mass of UK ex-pats livens up the gigs quite a bit. The last show I was at that they did at the Venue was perfect in terms of audience/band give and take – it was a proper fun, who-gives-a-toss-what-time-we need-to-get-up-in-the-morning kind of night – what I consider to be an ideal gig for this band. Tonight was less than ideal, but everyone had to make do with what they had.

What about you? Were you there? What did you think?

1 Henrietta
2 Baby Don’t You Lie To Me
3 Seven Nights Seven Days
4 Flathead
5 Desperate Guy
6 She’s Not Gone Yet But She’s Leaving
7  —
8 Whistle For The Choir
9 Imposters (Little by Little)
10 possibly Me and the Devil
11 Got Ma Nuts From A Hippy
12 Acid Jazz Singer
13 Thief
14 Everybody Knows You Cried Last Night
15 Dogtown
16 Halloween Blues
17 We Need Medicine
18 Baby Fratelli
19 Until She Saves My Soul

For the Girl
Chelsea Dagger
Runaround Sue

  1. According the setlist I grabbed from the sound guy, #7 was A Heady Tale. The rest of your setlist is accurate including Me and the Devil. I’m not quite sure where you were that you couldn’t see the keyboardist, but he was definitely there the whole time behind Jon, stage right. I agree the vibe was a bit weird (I arrived literally seconds before the Fratellis took the stage). I thought the sound was overly muddy/hollow and spent the first four songs moving places until I settled in front of the soundbooth. Eventually when Acid Jazz Singer kicked in, I sidled up to the stage for the rest of the show. I think the venue was a little too big and as a crowd member you felt really self conscious about all the empty space around. I was at the Venue show too and remember it being jammed and sweaty. I remember the sound especially the vocals being an issue there too, but maybe it’s just my hearing going down the tubes.

    The non-participatory nature of a portion of the crowd didn’t help the vibe and I had a similar complaint at the recent AC/DC show where my friend and I had floor seats in a black hole of applause/noise. It was super awkward to be the only ones clapping between songs. What has happened to concertgoers?

  2. Hey, thanks for the message. I was far house left, like far, far house left at a table near the lighting tech. A few tall and inconveniently placed people on the dance floor edge had my view obscured almost completely, but luckily they never stayed long. In comparison to the last show, this really was night and day. Last time at the Venue, the landlord was probably relieved the furniture was bolted to the floor. This time, for songs that weren’t on Costello Music, I’d wager the heart rate barely increased.

    Audiences really do make or break a gig. It’s fantastic when you are part of a crowd that is feeling it to the same extent you are. But when you’re there, just willing them to do SOMEthing, that puts a huge damper on things. When Jake Bugg / Noel Gallagher & High Flying Birds / Snow Patrol played the former GM Place (Rogers now), the rows of seating on the floor separated audience members quite a bit, and because they were the expensive floor seats (not to mention the comps and VIPs), the people were incredibly lacklustre and disengaged and the obstacles the chairs provided prevented any potential for cohesiveness and having ‘fan pockets’ band together. I was honestly wondering why those people were even there. But then, I LOVE Snow Patrol and Gallagher was essentially my Oasis substitute.

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