Times are tough… Unless you are in the music industry yourself (or a retired millionaire), it is difficult to attend every single gig that passes through town. Local acts will usually give you multiple opportunities – sometimes in the one year – to see them, but when it comes to international outfits, who knows when they will be back around your parts again. Favored acts are usually given the benefit of the doubt, and so was the case with Floridian rockers Anberlin early in 2011, when yours truly saw them twice in the same week (Soundwave Festival & headlining sideshow). So when the Stephen Christian led quintet announced that they would be touring Australia once more in August, I met the revelation with ambivalence. I mean, it was not as if they had released a new album in the meantime, and simply throwing “An Evening With…” on the tour poster did little for me initially. Surely, they had to woo fans some other way. And that they did!
First up – and the only support act of the night – were Sydney pop-punkers Tonight Alive. Having been impressed by the quintet at a previous supporting performace, their placement on this show was most definitely a pleasing one. As per usual, charismatic front-woman Jenna McDougall was handing out lessons on the art of smiling, while woo’ing all the (ummm) gentlemen in attendance with a Led Zeppelin t-shirt covered by a flannel shirt. Looks really are not an issue with Jenna, so it’s a bit of an oddity that her band-mates are attempting to make her stand out even further by grooming themselves as if they were in a 80s hard-rock band. Musically, Tonight Alive struggled a little on this night. The larger surroundings of The Palace Theatre seemed to hamper the mix, with McDougall still making a concerted effort for her surprisingly strong voice to be heard over the surrounding racket. Not helping matters – at least to me and a few others – was that it seems the sneaky buggers released a 2nd EP without many knowing (and here I was waiting for the LP to drop). This made their earlier tracks and new single ‘Starlight’ the clear favourites on the night.
So, getting back to our main-event of the night, what did Anberlin actually believe was going to be the selling point of this particular performance? Well, prior interviews did not suggest that it was going to be one specific thing, but more a combination of factors. An extended set, some covers, a few lesser-known songs, more acoustic work, a Q&A session and possibly even a special guest. It seemed rather vague in all honesty, but it also sounded rather tantalizing. If Anberlin could pull off even half of those successfully, then the price of admission seemed like an absolute bargain. It resulted in an audience which was part apprehensive and part excited, but when the band came out to do their thing on set opener ‘Dismantle. Repair.’, the crowd momentarily got lost in the moment of what could have been any other Anberlin concert… In other words, a cracking good show. It did not take long for the first curve-ball to be thrown our way however, with the third track of the set (‘Paperthin Hymn’) gaining an assist from Mark Stewart – lead singer of local outfit Horsell Common. Stewart was gone just as quick as he came and, dare I say it, but it almost seemed like a cheap ploy… A way of saying “look, we had a guest, just like we said we would”.
As the set progressed, it finally hit me that Anberlin had never sounded so good. On previous occasions, I had been a little critical of the band for attempting to rock themselves up too much, ultimately drowning out their major strengths; intricate musical hooks and Stephen Christian’s awe-inspiring vocals. Yet tonight, everything sounded so crisp. For a band that I have always deemed worthy of playing much larger venues than they do, a step up in capacity was assisting their performance. The rhythms of ‘Pray Tell’, the hard-hitting ‘Readyfuels’ and the hooks of ‘Never Take Friendship Personal’ came one after each other without a missed step, and then it was time to begin to tone it down a little as the set moved into its semi-acoustic section. The fantastic ‘Art of War’ was an early set highlight, as the stage was reconfigured to include 2 free-standing drums out front. B-Side ‘The Haunting’ once more made people wonder why it was not included on ‘Cities’, ‘The Unwinding Cable Car’ was a mass sing-along and even the rarely played ‘Alexithymia’ did not sound out of place. It was all a prelude to a mystery cover which turned out to be Crowded House’s ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over’, as “Hey now, Hey now” rang across the theatre. As if it was almost commonplace, shaggy redhead Travis Clark (of We The Kings, who were playing Melbourne the following night) laconically wandered out to sing the 2nd verse, while Jenna McDougall returned to assist with the outro and following tune ‘Down’. And just like that, Anberlin had successfully pulled off half of those aforementioned components in one foul swoop!
While the set had already passed well over the hour mark, what the audience was not to know was that when the acoustic set-up was dispensed with come 14th track ‘Breaking’, it simply ushered in the 2nd half of the gig. And what better way to set alight the stage than to perform the much-loved ‘The Feel Good Drag’. Depeche Mode cover ‘Enjoy The Silence’ followed, as did the likes of fan favorites ‘The Resistance’ and ‘A Day Late’. ‘Adelaide’ then got the banter going with the band taking some pre-checked questions in their stride. It wasn’t so much the answers themselves which were interesting, but more the way in which the quintet let their guard down and looked to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Even lead guitarist Joseph Milligan displayed a hitherto seen charisma which dispelled his usually statue-like performance. The main set then ended with the oddly effective duo of ‘Dance Dance Christa Paffgen’ and ‘Godspeed’ to rapturous applause. Of course, an encore and 26th track would follow, and there was only one song which would befit such an occasion… The simply phenomenal and awe-inspiring ‘*Fin’. It was the first time that many in attendance would witness this tremendous tune and I’m certain it will not be soon forgotten, no matter how many beverages had been downed by then.
It is not often one can say this, but to put it bluntly, ‘An Evening With Anberlin’ may well have been the best concert I have experienced to date. It may need a little time to settle for that call to be made, but it is definitely a contender, and The Foo Fighters will have to play their socks off in December if they are to top “Davey’s Top Gigs of the Year” list. Strangely, as much as it was an experience for all in attendance at this nation-wide tour, I am almost certain it was just as much an experience for Anberlin themselves. One of the major feelings I now have is how pleased I am that a band who deserve much more worldwide success than they have achieved, dared to think outside of the square and, more importantly, big. They carried this show off with a confidence and charisma that may well be the final piece of the puzzle which has been required to send this talented outfit to even more dizzying heights. I don’t think that anyone who happened to see Anberlin at one of these (apparently exclusive to Australia) shows would begrudge them playing arenas next time they toured… Because, like myself, they could look back at this particular night and realize that they were part of something new… something intimate… and something very special.