When I contacted The Thermals' record label hoping to cover this show, I neglected to notice that it fell on the same night as a Sporting KC match. This conflict saddened me. When the US Men's team semi-final match later fell on this same night, I was heartbroken. To add to my consternation, The Beaumont is just not a venue I enjoy — the entry process is onerous; the sightlines are horrible. The upside? The two bands playing have written some of my favourite songs in the last several years. Live rock vs. television? You know who wins.
Tasked with warming up the audience was DJ Autobot (nee Curt Cameruci) of Chicago's two-man DJ crew Flosstradamus. Autobot is party DJ and hype man in equal parts, but with the hot sun streaming onto the would-be dancefloor through the unobstructed windows, the under-21 crowd proved to be stubbornly self-conscious. During Autobot's 40-minute set, there were moments where the crowd bounced in unison (e.g. during a largely-unaltered spin of House of Pain's "Jump" – a track older than most of the audience) or waved its hands with euphoric abandon (Daft Punk's "One More Time"), but generally the set struggled to move the crowd. At 8:30 DJ Autobot turned up his hype machine once more to usher the three members of Portland Oregon's The Thermals onto the stage; that got the audience's attention.
The Thermals began its set with "It's Trivia" and continued into a stream of songs uninterrupted by banter. Only technical difficulties with frontman Hutch Harris's guitar amplifier slowed the pace. As his guitar cut out, drummer Westin Glass and bassist Kathy Foster stared uneasily at each other, quickly deciding to complete the song while Harris fiddled with his equipment. With a unsure smile, Foster addressed the audience. Designated pitcher Harris was similarly stilted when delivering quick "thank yous" to the crowd; it was if he had forgotten that only moments ago the audience was full of fans pumping their fists along to his every syllable.
In the age of browser tabs it's largely pointless to describe a band's music, but for those not interested enough to even click a link, it must be said that The Thermals is a curious sort of punk band. It's songs are poppy with strong melodic elements, but in no way does the band resemble the pop punk of The Queers and that ilk, nor does it recall the tight power pop tradition of Cheap Trick. Ted Leo might be the only touchstone for the band, but even that comparison only addresses the intangibles and ethos, with little real similarity to the other's compositions.
The joy of The Thermals' music comes largely from the fact that it is a trio – Harris's guitar lines sing keyboard-like melodies each time he steps away from the microphone for a bridge or chorus. While the guitar lines made the choruses bright and anthemic, sadly they were frequently lost during the verses, buried in what was aberrantly bad sound in the Beaumont. The same sound woes effected Glass's bass drum, whose dull distorted rumble sounded more like flatulence than the tight punches he created on the rest of his small kit. Foster, along with her shock of blonde curly bangs and her bass lines, constantly bounced throughout the set.
The band finished its 35-minute set with "A Pillar of Salt," at which point Foster cheerfully waved goodbye to the audience. Although the band regularly plays to audiences of thousands, I get the impression that the experience is still a bit surreal for its members. I suppose that regardless of the familiarity, The Thermals is not yet at home with its modest fame.
Between acts DJ Autobot came back out for another 35 minutes of music. This set seemed a bit more adventurous, and although it was still the pop songs that snapped the audience to attention (Ke$ha, for example, was quite popular), a few braver mixes caught my ear. Again my enjoyment was hampered by the muddy low-end sound in the club. A casual music fan and friend of my wife's asked if the sound was better at The Uptown (a venue she is more familiar with) because it was larger. As a fan of small rooms (much smaller than The Beaumont), this hurt my soul. Soon, however, I was back in the photographer's pit oblivious to the sonic nuances, and instead watching roadies wheel a platform containing the headliner's drum kit and keyboards to the front of the stage. Behind me, the young, mostly female, audience stood pressed against a restraining barricade. Although occasionally annoyed by the ebbing audience around them, the crowd surfers dropping in from above, and the amorous boys behind them, they cheerfully held their ground, sang along to the DJ's selections, and chanted for the headliners to begin.
At 9:40, DJ Autobot played Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" and the two members of Brooklyn's Matt & Kim (vocalist/keyboardist Matt Johnson and drummer Kim Schifino) ran onto the stage, each taking a victory lap around the platform, before perching themselves atop their instruments, arms outstretched, to survey the cheering (to say the least) audience. The limitless energy shown during this entrance remained constant during the band's 75-minute set, and while it's ability to give to its audience is admirable, the constant upbeat performance and pandering stage banter did begin to wear on me after a while. It wasn't too long before I felt I was trapped on the set of The Muppet Show with Schifino playing the role of the shaking, over-caffeinated Kermit the Frog, arms stretched and flailing, wide mouthed, and head tilted skyward. Caffeine, it turns out, may have had a role in the performance as Schifino later revealed that red wine and Red Bull is her new favourite libation.
Matt & Kim's music is built on the manic propulsion of Schifino's drumming – it simply doesn't stop. Her massively toned shoulders and biceps punish a small drum kit, while her mouth remains open in a euphoric smile revealing distractingly white teeth. Johnson's performance is less effusive, though still manic by any standards. He plays two keyboards that each generate cartoon-like tones – the first of a plinking piano, and the second a deep buzzing synthesized tone. His vocals (often joined by Schifino's) are shouted excitement. When the band's insistent pop finds the right keyboard melody, the results are stunning, but by an hour into the set, the majority of the songs began to sound painfully similar. But where songs fail, the stage show attempts to pick up the slack.
Johnson's stage banter was a mixture of "gee whiz isn't this great we're all together" peppered with a few "we're going to mother-fucking love you for the rest of our mother-fucking lives" and more mentions of "Kansas City" than I could tabulate. There were singalong requests, moments when Schifino stood on the reaching arms of the audience, colourful Matt & Kim-branded balloons, and easily a dozen times when the duo stood on the stools behind their instruments. When Schifino requested the guys in the audience remove their shirts and twirl them about over their heads, she was rewarded by a sea of spinning tees. To be honest, it was more stage show than I needed, but I was definitely in the minority as the fans ate up the band's antics.
Matt & Kim closed its set with "Daylight" (a song casual listeners may recognize from a Bacardi commercial) before returning for an encore of "Cameras." The later featured mostly Johnson while Schifino ran about the stage and otherwise interacted with the audience. In the hours between Schifino's first appearance on the stage and her final waving disappearance into the wings, her energy level never dropped. Evidently this is what Matt & Kim performances are known for, and the sweaty, occasionally shirtless audience members leaving the show had certainly gotten what they came for. I knew I had made the right choice in coming to the show, but that doesn't mean I didn't hurry home to watch the matches on my DVR.