While creeping around the block looking for a parking spot, infuriating drivers with my crawl and last minute realisations that I'm going straight from a turn lane, I remembered why I never had a car when I lived in Boston, New York, or Chicago. Driving to a show in Center City adds a layer of annoyance that I hadn't ever associated with live music. Each time I circled, looking for the preferred parking garage described on the website, the line outside of the Trocadero Theatre stretched longer. The night's all-ages show sold out weeks ago, and it looked like every ticket holder was already queued up waiting for the doors to open.
Eventually I found parking, and eventually I took my spot in a line broken into several segments by employees attempting to placate neighbouring businesses and city traffic. The line moved quickly, and soon I was inside the 19th century theatre that I had seen on tour itineraries for decades. If this means anything to anyone, the Trocadero looks a lot like Chicago's Metro, although the former is longer and narrower. Both venues have a similar 1200 person capacity including their balconies. While I had a photo pass that would allow me close proximity to the bands, that vantage point would only be allowed for the first three songs of each band's set; after that I'd have to find a spot out on the filling floor, or up in the already-packed 21+ balcony. I tried not to worry about this uncertain future as I made my way past the barricade and toward the foot of the stage.
A bit after 8:00 The Postelles took the stage under a crush of deep blue lights. The audience positively erupted for the New York City quartet. The band's debut album is largely a pop/rock affair that fuses five decades of popular music into a pleasant, though seldom adventurous, sound. Live, its predilection for garage rock took the forefront, with tracks like the bubblegum "Hey Little Sister" losing a bit of their saccharine smack in the process. Regardless of the song, however, the audience was entranced, singing along to every song, and breaking into simultaneous clapping accompaniment without the usual instigations from the stage. Not that frontman Daniel Balk wasn't working his crowd in all the cliche ways. He posed with his microphone at the edge of the stage at every opportunity, shouted "Philadelphia!" innumerable times, brought girls up from the audience on stage to dance, and, of course, climbed off the stage and into the audience – a simply textbook performance. For the last song, he removed his jean jacket revealing a scrawny frame draped in a sleeveless t-shirt. This was evidently a real treat for the teenage girls that lined the area in front of the stage.
While Balk's physique was of little interest to me, I was a captivated by his voice. It's round, big, and clean. You know those moments when Springsteen reaches high, and all the mush and gravel clear out of his voice? His big "H-oh" shouts in "Born to Run?" That's what Balk sounds like all the time. I never would have made that comparison listening to the band's album, but live, there it was. As big as Balk's presence was, the rest of his band's wasn't. Guitarist David Dargahi did step out to the front of the stage once or twice, but neither he, nor bassist John Speyer are in any way rock stars. There were broad smiles, especially during the band's cover of "Hound Dog" imbued with two twangy guitar solos, but I couldn't shake the feeling that both men would soon put down their instruments and return to the office to resume their work day in the accounting department.
The highlight of the set was lead-off single "Sleep on the Dance Floor." This '70s pop-inspired number rung bright and true with its charming backing vocals, melodious guitar line that mimicked the lead vocal, snapping drums, and its fat buoyant bass line. While it's possible to spend paragraphs ripping at The Postelles for what they are or aren't, there's no arguing that "Sleep on the Dance Floor" is a great, great song.
Although there were minimal stage changes necessary between acts, tradition required that the audience be forced into anxious anticipation before the headliner can appear. Still, each time a song would end on the house PA, or each time a tech would walk across the stage carting water or towels, the audience would erupt into hopeful cheers. Eventually the cheers turned to chants, creating one of life's most disheartening events: those times when the audience unites as one, makes its desires known, puts its energy behind the cause, and then fails. After two or three minutes of ever-quickening clapping, the whole process loses steam and the audience returns to its separate conversations. Failure.
While the sold-out audience waited the 35 minutes for Brighton, England's The Kooks to perform, it could at least be content that the band elected to start its one-month North American tour in Philadelphia. East Coast rivals New York City would have to wait another 24 hours.
At 9:15 the house lights dropped, intro music played, and the members of The Kooks came into view amidst Beatlemania-esque screams – frontman Luke Pritchard's tight pants and curly mop of hair evidently being a flame for the younger moths in the audience. The band opened with "Is It Me," the lead-off single from its new album Junk of the Heart. Like most of the band's output, the song is textbook Britpop with jangly guitars, an overdriven chorus, and an underrated bass line. The ghosts of Blur, Oasis, & Pulp definitely haunt The Kooks, as do the imprints left by earlier '60s progenitors such as The Kinks and The Who (the latter is only particularly apparent in The Kooks strong rhythm section). The opener's quiet verse allowed Pritchard moments to reach out (both physically and otherwise) into the audience. The love it returned to him was both immense and unconditional.
During the first three numbers, flashing lights bedevilled my photography, causing me to curse each time I missed the opportunity to capture Pritchard aping for the girls in the front row. All this attention was too much for one girl, inspiring her to frantically toss a wadded-up love letter onto the stage in hopes Pritchard might validate her with a mention on stage or via Twitter. Where their relationship goes from there is anyone's guess.
As I was forced to change my vantage point, the band underwent its own changes as well. Throughout the course of the evening, Pritchard played electric guitar, acoustic guitar, or sometimes eschewed strings all together. Hugh Harris generally played electric guitar, but bassist Peter Denton occasionally became the third guitarist, or a second keyboardist. Drummer Paul Garred was expectedly consistent in his role, although a fifth performer – a tour-only keyboardist – often added synthesizer from from dark rear of the stage. I watched most of these roles and instrument swaps from a position high in the balcony. While I couldn't find at seat at such a late point in the game, the Trocadero did provide me with a view that was pleasant and complete.
And this is how I would describe the set up to that point. Nine songs and 35 minute into the set, everything was pleasant, but entirely unmemorable. However, when Pritchard strapped on an acoustic guitar and walked onto the stage alone for "Seaside" from the band's debut album, the energy shifted. The added intimacy, hinted at in the opening number, sucked the entire audience in, and the entire audience sang the words back to Pritchard. The excitement and acoustic treatment continued as the rest of the band joined in for "Tick of Time" and "See the Sun."
When the electrified instruments returned for "How D'Ya Like That" everything seemed different. Denton's piano line seemed positively brilliant. Each song I heard sounded like a hit, and four songs later "Shine On" sounded like an unstoppable force. This definitely isn't the case on the album, where the song comes off as a tad derivative and certainly middle of the road. The band then completed its set with a fast-paced, nearly disco-punk version of "Do You Wanna." Although more Maximo Park than The Kinks, it did take the energy level to an unsurpassable peak, allowing the performers to walk off the stage to thunderous applause while their instruments still wailed with feedback. And then the fans began their calls for the encore.
As tradition dictates, the band did return for a pre-planned encore, playing three songs: "Saboteur," "Junk of the Heart," and finally "Naive." Although my spell of irrational fandom was broken by the reality of packing up my camera gear, The Kooks had earned a slot on my "You really need to hear those songs live" list. It's definitely worth it, no matter how many times you have to circle the block first.