Day 171: The Day Lou Died – Finding Religion with Frightened Rabbit and Augustines in Philadelphia

by Tom Noonan

This review was originally posted here.

I went to see Augustines play with Frightened Rabbit on the day Lou Reed died.  He was mentioned once, when Augustines’s frontman Billy McCarthy dedicated a song in his honor, but everything felt bigger that night in the Electric Factory by virtue of timing.  Reed’s shadow hung over everything, and the industrial-sized venue felt a little more connected because of it.  It was as if we were all vaguely related and found our way to the same wake.  But where do you go from there?

The night opened with Philistines Jr., a project helmed by indie producing auteur Peter Katis, whose production work you’ve probably heard on The National’s Boxer or either of Frightened Rabbit’s first two records.  As a musician, Katis sounded far from polished, stringing together a set of songs that went in so many directions at once they barely ended up moving at all.  It’s unsurprising that he played like a producer, throwing different sounds at you, ones he’s perfected from the control room, but I left wondering how a producer could be so defiantly without a sound, without a discernable identity.  He didn’t elude categorization; he laughed at it.

These were songs meant to be played for friends; they felt stuck in that stage.  There was something exciting about his unpredictability, something that made me laugh as much as it made me respect him.  When one of his songs turned itself over to a hard rock breakdown that somehow melded both Iron Maiden and Tigers Jaw, I found myself wishing he’d spend some more time alone in a room with a guitar instead of a soundboard.  His recklessness has legs.

When Augustines took the stage not long after, I was sure the word derivative would find its way into my notes.  A three piece suit based in Seattle (recently, from Brooklyn), they looked like radio rock cast-offs, with frontman Billy McCarthy dressed like a Mumford and bassist Eric Sanderson channeling Nate Ruess.  Then they started playing.  And it was loud, so loud that you could see the nosebleed seats rising up behind them.  McCarthy’s built like Marcus Mumford and sings with that same dynamism, like he’s trying to get you to believe in something.  For Mumford, that thing seems to be God.  I’m not sure what it is for McCarthy, but I’m ready to buy in.

By the band’s second song, the spectacularly melodramatic “Chapel Song”, McCarthy was less Mumford-y than he was Bono-ing.  He had that same sense of space, that illusion that he could reach just about anybody who heard him.  The band’s first album is called Rise Ye Sunken Ships, and, on Sunday, you got the feeling McCarthy was trying to raise the Titanic.  When he dedicated a song to Lou Reed, I just wanted him to keep going.  We knew where he came from, and we were dying to see where he’d go.  Our answer probably lies in the band’s tremendous new cut, “Cruel City”, a break-up song aimed at New York that uses late-era Phil Collins as a jumping off point.  Sunday, it sounded like a band finding its footing.

Then Frightened Rabbit took the stage in front of a backdrop that looked like it had been lifted from a Kubrick film, and, out of the gate, their set wasn’t exactly a religious experience.  It was the set they were supposed to play, which means they slowed down “The Modern Leper” to accentuate its bite then sprinted through “Nothing Like You”.  By the time Scott Hutchison took a moment to thank the audience for coming out, I felt comfortable, an adjective that doesn’t quite fit Frightened Rabbit.  I was sure I knew how the rest of the set would play out.

I was wrong.

The next two songs built some tension by crashing the lingering precision of “Backyard Skulls” head-on into the nostalgic folk of “Old Old Fashioned”.  Both songs muse on the idea of memory, but offer dissenting opinions.  You can’t have the nostalgia without the guilt.  It took this discomforting thesis to shake me loose, to obliterate my repose.  Right around then the very real emotions started kicking in, with only a few having to do with Lou Reed.  Soon, Scott Hutchison was alone onstage with an acoustic guitar, poised to wreck the crowd.  Sipping on “Fuck this Place” and “Poke” like they were two drinks poured in an empty apartment, he did just that.  We didn’t stand a chance.

The rest of the set kept up the assault, winding its way through backhanded love songs (“My Backwards Walk”) and some genuine hope for finding another, comparably scarred soul (“The Woodpile”).  It was a lot to handle, but that’s kind of what you signed up for by walking through the front door.  Frightened Rabbit can get gnarly, and their finale hit on just about every level.  It started with the gnarliest of Frightened Rabbit songs, “Keep Yourself Warm”, which introduced into itself an interesting wrinkle when Hutchison pointed his microphone towards the audience during the final chorus.  “You won’t find love in a, won’t find love in a hole/It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.”  He was holding us all accountable, calling everyone there out for the transgressions they’ve invariably made, reminding us of our presence.  There was no hiding.  We’d been identified as both criminals and confidants.  It was as close to a religious experience as we were going to get, but the process didn’t feel like it was healing anything.  Again, this was calculated.  So when Hutchison powered up “The Loneliness and the Scream”, people screamed, others cried, one couple broke up (literally).  You could feel the release, the acceptance we were all taking part in.  It was something along the lines of penance, a transcendence Lou Reed once wrote about, and for the first time all night Hutchison’s words didn’t dictate the mood.  “In the loneliness/Oh, the loneliness/And the scream to prove/To everyone that I exist.”  We were all there, we all existed, we didn’t need any more proof.

Long after the lights came up, a friend turned to me, mouthing the word, “Wow”.  All I did was nod.  It’s all I could do.  There was nothing left to say.