Saturday, February 21, 2009

Live Review: Islands 2.20.09

“Saturday night in Bologna!” Nick Thorburn declared, trying out his rock-star shout with at least a tinge of sheepishness. A slight cheer came up from the crowd, packed in beneath his feet. Then the needle met the arena-rock balloon: “It’s Friday,” an audience member called back. Psssst, the air came out.


But Thorburn was not to be discouraged. The singer is usually saddled with a six-string, but during a song with no rhythm guitar near the end of Islands’ set last night, he decided to do some prancing on the tiny stage. He snatched the microphone from its clip, and with a toss that was just a touch too consciously irreverent to work, he shoved the mic stand off the stage and onto the head of a plump, unenthusiastic photographer. She wasn’t there to hear the band, and she definitely wasn’t there to get strafed with hardware. Thorburn anxiously grabbed the stand and apologized by patting her frowning head.


Never the quitter, Thorburn came back out to the front of the stage later in the song, leaned over, stuck out his butt, and kissed foreheads for about fifteen seconds with the tallest, most bearded, most indifferent man standing in the front row, shouting lyrics into the microphone and into his new friend's face.


While Islands have a long way to go before they reach the stadium stardom to which they might aspire, they’ve got one thing going for them: they can play. This is a band of experts, and their live show is as tight as Thorburn’s black jeans (skin-sucking, to be exact). Onstage at the Covo Club in Bologna, Italy, Islands made it clear that this is how they should be appreciated—in concert. For a dancy indie-pop band, that’s pretty remarkable.


With precision where necessary and volatile abandon elsewhere, the quintet mixed ripping, distorted guitar lines with escalating violin riffs and tropical-island (lowercase) drum beats. (Xylophonist/second violinist Sebastian Chow sat out last night; maybe they couldn’t fit a sixth member on the stage.) Lay Thorburn’s haunting, veneered voice on top of these instrumentals and you come away with the reason “Creeper” and “The Arm,” dance-happy tunes from last year’s lukewarmly received sophomore effort, stole the show.

Blend the Killers and Michael Jackson and you get Maroon 5. But throw Grizzly Bear’s mystery and Elvis Costello’s swagger into the mix, and you’ve got a stellar show.

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