Anberlin live @ Anaheim House of Blues: This is our last goodnight.

Last night, Anberlin put one of the most high-energy rock shows that I’ve ever attended – the kind where just watching is exhausting. (Not being able to resist moving to the kinetic rhythms of many of their songs – even when socked in by the presence of several other sweaty bodies – might have something to do with that.) You know how a runner who is otherwise exhausted can somehow still find an extra dose of strength to make that last sprint to the finish line? That’s what seems to have happened with these guys on their final tour. They tore through over 20 of their songs with hardly any breaks, only stopping briefly to thank the audience for making their 12 years of existence as a band such a blast.

While the rundown included pretty much every heavy-hitter from all of their previous albums, the band also excelled during mellower sections of their set when they brought out some of their melodic, mid-tempo material, including a number of my personal favorites. One weakness that has plagued the band’s live shows over the years is that their talented rhythm section tends to be too high in the mix, making it difficult to discern lyrics or melody during their big rockers. So I appreciated the shifts in tone during a few sections of the set, where we could more clearly hear the audience singing along and loving every word of it, and where I stopped to ponder for a minute or two how some of these songs that I had connected with on an emotional level may have had vastly different meanings to different individuals within that crowd of sweaty humans. “The Unwinding Cable Car” is the classic example – the band classifies it as their best sing-along, it gives both guitarists a chance to shine on the acoustic, and I’ve always considered it a deeply redemptive song, even though I never thought it was about (and still don’t fully understand how it’s about) what lead singer Stephen Christian says it’s about when he introduces the song on stage. Anberlin’s lyrics are often cryptic, and sometimes they’re about troubling things that happen in our relationships with the opposite sex, with family, with God, or even with ourselves. But even the more straightforward and seemingly just-for-fun songs in their repertoire have clearly connected with a more diverse (and just plain larger) audience than I had ever realized.

Of course, you had the folks who were just there to rock out – I had joked before the show that we should stand off to the side to avoid the mosh pit – they’re really too poppy of a rock band for that sort of thing, despite their more angry/aggressive moments. Or so I thought. The crowd started getting pretty rowdy midway through the set – somewhere around the trio of “Impossible”, “Time & Confusion”, and “A Day Late”, definitely three of the group’s bounciest pop/rock tracks. I never really got the whole crowd surfing and moshing thing, but at least we weren’t in the middle of it. I suppose it might have been more fitting during “The Resistance”, considering the lyric “You’ve got a riot on your hands”, but anyone who really pays attention to Anberlin’s lyrics hopefully understands that even their angriest songs are more about preventing violence or at least cautioning against humanity’s more violent and selfish tendencies.

The big elephant in the room, oddly enough, was the band’s newest and last album, Lowborn. As the setlist hit classic track after classic track, and I mentally checked all of the fan favorites off of my list, I started to wonder if that collection of ten new (and mostly excellent) songs that I’d been enjoying over the last several months was a construct that only existed in our collective minds. We had discussed some of its pros and cons over dinner, speculating on which songs might get played and in what order. I would have never predicted that the answer would be “none of them”. (At least if you don’t count the chorus of “Harbinger” slipping into the tail end of “Fin”, being molded to the melody of Anberlin’s all time best-loved epic album closer – a move which I had sort of predicted, though I had expected “Harbinger” as a prelude rather than a postlude.) It was a weird move for the band to make, especially with some of those new songs so aptly summing up their career, wishing fans a fond farewell, and wishing the lives they’d put on hold to live this dream over the last twelve years a fond hello. But these guys know their fans better than I do. They knew how many “bucket list songs” were floating around in their discography that many of us had never heard live and would never get the chance once this final tour wound down. So it made sense to focus on highlights all of their other albums (plus “The Haunting”, which they’ve pretty much admitted belonged on Cities the entire time), plus a few deep cuts not heard on the rest of the tour, just to give a little something different to the super-devoted fans who had followed them to several West Coast shows. Maybe not all of them ranked among my personal favorites, but never having seen the band do a full headlining set, it was a treat to finally hear a set that felt like it had been hand-picked by the fanbase. Vital‘s definitely more of a “pump the crowd up” type of album than Lowborn, which is more of a “throw the rulebook out the window and record whatever we want without worrying about how it will translate live” type of album. Up until those last few minutes, you could have told me I’d stepped back in time two years and that this was a stop on their tour for Vital. Which is fine, since I hadn’t seen them live since the Dark Is the Way, Light Is a Place era anyhow.

As the aforementioned “Fin” closed out the set, the audience sang along to the part provided by a children’s choir in the album version: “Patron saint, are we all lost like you?” I thought about the myriad of meanings that the phrase “I am the patron saint of lost causes” might have to so many different people, and about how Anberlin has never classified itself as a “Christian” band (well, aside having two people in the band literally named Christian), but how both the love and the fear of God have played into their lyrics over the years. Stephen Christian isn’t the preachy type, but he’s no afraid to wrestle with the troubling things that God-followers do in his lyrics, and that massive closing song is probably their best example: We’re not questioning God/Just those He chose to carry on His cross/We’re no better, you’ll see/Just all of us, the lost causes.” I think lots of folks who have felt let down by organized religion – whether they still go to church or not – can find some resonance in those lyrics. It’s hard to know how to deal with an ideal being preached that no one can live up to – whether it’s someone else’s ideal or our own, internalized expectations of ourselves. And I don’t think Stephen means that “patron saint” lyric to imply that he’s at the center of some newfangled religion formed out of a group of misfits and rejects. It’s more like what the apostle Paul wrote about being the chief of sinners. I can’t acknowledge all of the dysfunction in the world – even among folks who believe in a loving higher power – if I can’t also acknowledge that I’m the last one who should be pointed to as an example of getting it right. But when a crowd can share both that righteous anger at those who have misrepresented God and done so much damage in his name, and also share in that humble confession of being among the so-called “lost causes”, then maybe there is just a little bit of church happening amongst all of those sweaty bodies, the ones that have finally taken a break from crashing up against and surfing on top of one another, and who are now throwing up the Lowborn hand sign (that album title in itself being a reference to one of the Psalms, as I would later discover) and emphatically singing along to the revised ending borrowed from the final song on Anberlin’s final album: “We’ll live forever, forever, forever!”

Setlist:

  • Never Take Friendship Personal
  • We Owe This to Ourselves
  • Paperthin Hymn
  • Self-Starter
  • Readyfuels
  • Someone Anyone
  • The Other Side
  • (The Symphony of) Blasé
  • Take Me (As You Found Me)
  • The Unwinding Cable Car
  • The Haunting
  • Modern Age
  • Breaking
  • Impossible
  • Time & Confusion
  • A Day Late
  • Hello Alone
  • Dismantle. Repair.
  • The Resistance
  • Godspeed
  • Feel Good Drag

Encore:

  • (*Fin)/Harbinger (chorus only)
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3 thoughts on “Anberlin live @ Anaheim House of Blues: This is our last goodnight.

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