Chvrches and Lo Moon live @ The Greek Theatre: They were a kaleidoscope.

There are certain bands whose recorded material I’m absolutely over the moon for, and yet who I feel hesitant about seeing live. Chvrches was one of those bands, right up until a friend decided to get tickets to their Love Is Dead tour when it rolled through Los Angeles. They are absolute wizards of synthpop in the studio, and all three members of the band are capable of playing multiple instruments. Yet when a band plays a style of music that is sufficiently programmed, I often wonder if it’s worth showing up just to watch them press buttons on laptops. As it turns out, that’s not at all a fair characterization of Chvrches’ live shows, where really all that comes pre-recorded is the background effects and loops – the synths, bass, whatever guitar parts their songs might occasionally feature, and most obviously the vocals, are all performed live. For their latest tour, they’ve also added a live drummer. This type of music can get me really excited when delivered with a sufficient amount of live energy, and I should have known better than to doubt Chvrches in this regard. Their three studio albums thus far have been about as close to uniformly excellent as the discography of any band in my collection, so of course their setlist was going to be packed with wall-to-wall favorites, almost no matter what they chose to play. This might have been a little more expensive of a show, with a slightly bigger crowd, than I’m used to when I go to concerts these days, but at no point in the evening did I doubt that this would be 100% worth it.

One thing I quickly learned about Chvrches’ presence as a live band is that they get right to it and don’t spend a lot of time on nonsense – no lengthy speeches, no milking the crowd’s response to a song for more than it’s actually worth by repetitively dragging things out, no ego-centric rock star antics. Frontwoman Lauren Mayberry – seen on this particular night wearing silver “party pants” and a shirt that boldly declared “GIRLS CAN DO ANYTHING” – is legendary for making up in personality what she might lack in physical stature. She seemed to never stop spinning and racing back and forth across the stage, all while maintaining her crystal clear vocal delivery, and it was clear that she was every bit as pumped to see the crowd as they were to see the band. I guess they’re still at a phase of their career where they’re taken aback by how much momentum they’re picking up in terms of their fanbase. Perhaps it was just self-deprecating humor on her part, but there was a part of me who believed for half a sec, when she joked in her adorable Scottish accent that she was afraid they’d get to the gig and no one would have shown up, that this was a genuine recurring nightmare of hers, even three albums deep into a career that thus far seems to have hit no speedbumps. She and her bandmates are the type of artists who I can tell take their music and lyrics seriously, but don’t take themselves all that seriously. Sure, perhaps at one point a song that had a lengthier setup time than usual led to an odd bit of banter about bellybutton hygiene, but that was after the band had torn through “Get Out”, “Gun”, “Bury It”, and “We Sink”, four incredibly  high-energy songs right at the beginning of their set, and they promised us they still had tons more to go. If this was the slowest spot in the set, we were in for a stellar night indeed.

While I’ve heard that Love Is Dead seems to have gotten more of a lukewarm response from a lot of the fanbase than their earlier material, you wouldn’t have known it from how prominently it figured into the setlist last night. This being the tour for that album, of course I expected to get the big singles at some point that evening (with one very notable exception to be discussed later), but the band went pretty far into the album’s deep cuts as well, having played nine of the twelve songs on the album by the time the night was over. Obviously the fanbase doesn’t know these as well yet, but they seemed pretty pumped for most of those songs, with even the more introverted cuts like “God’s Plan” and “Really Gone” clearly having their fair share of fans in the audience. Their debut The Bones of What You Believe of course drew the biggest cheers and hoots and hollers, getting quite generous reception all around, even from tracks like “Under the Tide” and the intensely creepy but awesome “Science/Visions” that I don’t think were ever singles. Martin Doherty of course got his brief turn as frontman on the former and also “God’s Plan”, while I learned for the first time than it was actually Iain Cook who provided the eerie vocal counterpoints on “Science/Visions”. One of my few complaints about the band’s newer music is that there seems to be less tradeoff between the female and male vocals in general, with Martin generally relegated to one track per album, but as the guys backed Lauren up on several songs both old and new, while switching off between their ever-present keyboards and the occasional guitar or bass that got them out from behind their rigs for a bit, I was reminded that I love Chvrches not just for being an immensely catchy synthpop band with an outspoken and charismatic frontwoman, but for being a true team that refuses to let one member become the sole face of the band while the others get relegated to the background.

If you’ve never been to a Chvrches show, you should probably know that the band really loves their strobe lights. It’s not an elaborate stage show, but it’s certainly a colorful one, with the lights changing hues to fit the mood of each song, sometimes burning a glaring red or a warm pink, and sometimes glowing a warm, ambient blue. Signs at the venue entrance warned those with sensitivity to these effects that they might want to reconsider – and indeed, during the most intense moments of “God’s Plan”, the blinking, blinding white lights got to be a bit much even for someone like me who has a pretty high tolerance for visual sensory abuse. If you’re looking for a band’s stage decorations and lighting to tell some sort of a story, then this probably isn’t the band for you, but I think they did a great job of helping get listeners in the frame of mind for each song without being overly distracting (except for that one time!) Lauren has also, according to the friend I attended the show with, become more of an animated performer where she was once a bit more robotic, with her various swirls and jumps and bows and whatnot depicting the state of mind she was probably in when she penned a lot of her lyrics – usually ranging from angry to fired up for a fight to downright sad, despite what the catchy synths and chirpy vocals might lead the unassuming listener to believe. There were moments where I could sense the pain and frustration in lyrics in songs like “The Mother We Share”, “Leave a Trace”, or my most recent favorite from the new album, “Deliverance”, where the need to ham it up for an audience couldn’t mask the fact that Chvrches songs often play out as cautionary tales or as rebuttals to someone who is being incredibly hurtful/abusive in a relationship. The aforementioned “Really Gone”, a downbeat track from the back half of Love Is Dead, was the show’s most vulnerable moment, just Lauren sitting center stage, singing mournfully under the still night sky with the full moon glowing above us all, wishing the specter of a dead relationship would just get up and leave already. Even up-tempo tracks like “Graffiti” almost seemed like ballads designed to give the band a breather from their highest-energy material in this context. I was grateful that, while the wall of sound wasn’t perfectly mixed (occasionally a characteristic synth line would get lost in the shuffle or something), the vocals generally rang through loud and clear, making it possible for me to consider a few of these songs I’d known for years in a new context even as I was singing along to words I now knew by heart.

What surprised me the most were the omissions. After “Bury It” made an early appearance, the band’s second album Every Open Eye was largely ignored, up until the end of the main set, when they brought out the one-two punch of “Leave a Trace” and the adrenaline rush of my personal favorite Chvrches song “Clearest Blue”. I once said that the build-up from the bridge up to the bouncy, Depeche Mode-esque synth coda of that song – you know, the part where she cries “Can you meet me more than halfway up!” was one of my favorite moments in music EVER. Having experienced it live, I can’t even begin to describe the excited chills that went up my spine and the unrelenting sense of elation I felt in that moment. I went in not even expecting that song to be a given – I figure if I really wanted to hear them play anything from that album, I should have gone to see them in 2015 when it was still new, because now they had a new album to try out on the road and a stone-cold classic of a debut with a list of highlights as long as the traffic jam of red car taillights slowly winding their way out of Griffith Park after the show ended. Something had to give somewhere, of course. By the time they came back from the encore, which was obviously going to include the “Mother We Share”, I started playing the “What songs are left?” game in my head, and even though I didn’t think it would work as well as a closer as it did, I really couldn’t think of a likely pick other than “Never Say Die” (a fun but repetitive track that has grown on me more and more despite my initial distaste for it.) Sure, I would have also loved to hear “Lies”, my favorite song from their debut and one of their earliest singles, or Love Is Dead‘s closing track “Wonderland”, but I’ve honestly got no complaints. A discussion between my friend and I on the way over revealed that he hadn’t been enjoying “My Enemy”, the second single from Love Is Dead with the guest vocal from The National‘s Matt Berninger, very much, and I figured that as a recent single, it was a must-play, but surprisingly, they skipped it. It isn’t really a big “get the crowd pumped” sort of a song anyway. It lacks the oomph that it really needs to keep the energy level building from the bridge back into the final chorus. I could imagine them Tiny Desk-ing that one, or otherwise doing a stripped-down arrangement with a different guest vocal, perhaps, but when playing to a big crowd on a summer night with their massive lighting rig and whatnot… it wasn’t missed. My companion had to find another time to take a bathroom break, unfortunately.

Speaking of music to take bathroom breaks to, that’s unfortunately how the opening band Lo Moon probably came across to a lot of people who weren’t familiar with them. I had listened to the band’s debut album ahead of time, because if I’m going to sit through an opening band rather than having to deal with the stress of showing up to a jam-packed concert right before the main act goes on, I generally find it more enjoyable (or at least tolerable) if I know the songs. To those like my friend who were not familiar with their music, it probably sounded like the same mid-tempo drumbeat for seven songs straight, occasionally brought to life with a surprising guitar solo or other bit of live performance energy not heard on the record, but brought back down to earth by choruses to melodically subtle and repetitive to really land with an audience primed for big pop hooks, and a vocalist who is probably going for more of an 80’s, precursor-to-emo sort of approach, but who can come across sounding like he only sorta cares half the time. Imagine a Chvrches album with only Martin songs on it, except none of them were allowed to go above a modest number of bpm’s, as if they had all been written by someone who listened to a ton of classic 80s pop albums and figured all of the slow-dancey ones you could use to score scenes from John Hughes movies were the primary sound they wanted emulate. Despite my reservations about the gloomy pace of it, I do enjoy Lo Moon’s debut album, but even the songs I was really excited to hear live didn’t really come across as much of anything special, even their debut single “Loveless”, which by the time they pulled it out as the closer, felt like more of the same, instead of having the dynamic contrast between a quirky, introverted drum loop and the euphoric live drum fills that it had on the album. They’re clearly one of those bands that is still filling out their discography and learning how to put together a setlist that engages an audience not already familiar with their work. They all seem like talented musicians who can multitask when needed, but they had a little bit too much unearned confidence in the audience’s ability to track with them, which they must have been self-conscious of at a few points because they kept milking the fact that they were from Los Angeles for cheap, tepid applause. (Look guys, L.A. is one of the two biggest cities in the country. Statistically speaking, it’s not all that special to run into someone else that is from here. Hometown pride alone is not going to win us over.) By the time lead singer Matt Lowell declared that he was gonna “try something different” and foist a new song on us, and that new song turned out to be a slower ballad than the rest of they stuff they’d played thus far, I was ready for these guys to be done, despite the fact that I was really anticipating hearing “Loveless” live. They just don’t have the chops yet, and while Chvrches seems to be enthused about them (Lauren at one point even joked that they have to stop bring bands on tour to open for them who are better than them – um, sorry Lauren, but HELL NO), that enthusiasm didn’t really seem to translate to their fanbase. At least the crowd was polite enough to either listen patiently through their set or just plain not show up until they were done, I guess. (I finally figured out the connection that probably led to Chvrches inviting this band on tour – Lo Moon’s guitarist is Samuel Stewart, son of Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics, who worked with Chvrches on their latest album. I hope it was more of a genuine admiration for their work and not just a quid pro quo, “I help you out with your album, you take my kid’s band out on tour” type of deal – I figure Chvrches has more integrity than that.)

Despite my earlier comments about the snarled-up traffic, I actually think The Greek Theatre has become one of my favorite L.A. music venues in the nearly two decades I’ve been attending various shows there. Part of it’s because I have a soft spot for Griffith Park, which is the natural setting in which the venue is located. It means they can only host concerts seasonally, because it can get chilly at night (yes, even in L.A. – don’t make fun of me, people!), but there’s really nothing better than seeing a favorite band perform under the moon and stars on a summer evening. (You might have to imagine the stars some of the time – but trust me, they’re up there somewhere.) If you’re ever in the area and have the good fortune of attending a show here, and you have free time earlier in the day, definitely make an afternoon of it, go hiking in the park or visit the observatory or something before the show. Parking can get expensive, but if you show up early enough and get to be one of the first to head down the hill, it’s actually not too terrible. And, at least if you live or are staying to the east of L.A., you don’t have to navigate gnarly L.A. nightlife traffic on your way out, like you would with the Hollywood Bowl, Staples Center, or any number of prestigious Sunset Strip clubs. (Uh… that came out wrong. I mean clubs on the Sunset Strip). I’ve seen bands from a lot of different genres there as my own tastes have evolved over the years, from Christian rock to indie folk to high-octane synthpop, and it’s never disappointed.

Chvrches setlist:

  • Get Out
  • Gun
  • Bury It
  • We Sink
  • Graffiti
  • Graves
  • God’s Plan
  • Under the Tide
  • Miracle
  • Science/Visions
  • Really Gone
  • Deliverance
  • Forever
  • Recover
  • Leave a Trace
  • Clearest Blue

Encore:

  • The Mother We Share
  • Never Say Die

Lo Moon setlist:

  • This Is It
  • The Right Thing
  • Thorns
  • Tried to Make You My Own
  • Real Love
  • (new song – nobody cares!)
  • Loveless
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One thought on “Chvrches and Lo Moon live @ The Greek Theatre: They were a kaleidoscope.

  1. Pingback: Lo Moon: Here’s a new genre for you… Sophisti-gaze. | murlough23

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