The queue to get into this gig was the largest I’ve ever seen at Rock City. It stretched right up Talbot Street, round the corner past the tour buses, up to the car park and then doubled back again. Impressive.
Sadly, what this meant was that even though we’d started queueing before the advertised door times Polar Bear Club were already into their set by the time we got into the venue, and were ripping their way through ‘Light Of Local Eyes’ by the time we reached the main hall. Their energetic blend of punk and hardcore was the perfect start to the evening, and they weren’t in any way intimidated by the size of the venue or their position at the bottom of the bill. Jimmy Stadt jumped around the stage with his glasses tied onto his head, looking for all the world like the bastard offspring of Jarvis Cocker and Bill Gates and sounding like someone had taught Lou Koller how to sing in tune, he and his bandmates putting the sort of energy into their performance that one might expect from a headlining band. PBC were well-received and clearly known to a lot of the crowd, as evidenced to the reaction of the announcement of ‘Burned Out In A Jar’ and the positive response to tracks from their new album, with the stand-out offering for me being ‘My Best Days’. They finished their set with ‘Living Saints’ and bowed off the stage, having well and truly set the bar for the evening.
Sadly, Tom Morello ‘The Nightwatchman’ failed to reach it. The Rage Against The Machine guitarist was a surprising choice as a middle support between the two other bands, for all that Tim from Rise Against later mentioned him as one of the ideological pioneers for what they wanted to do. Quite simply, it seemed that someone had taken a support band from Bruce Springsteen’s bill and dropped them into Rock City. The country-esque rock sounded tired and formulaic, and while Morello can sing his lyric-writing falls into the trap of being as idealistic as Zack de la Rocha’s without any of the punch his former bandmate could deliver either lyrically or vocally. The set’s liveliest moment was when he and the ‘Freedom Fighter Orchestra’ (as his backing band is apparently known) launched into Springsteen song (and RATM cover) ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’, the finale of which saw Morello finally bust out some of the truly astonishing guitar work he was always famous for. The brief segue into the riff from ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ directly afterwards got the crowd pumped up, but no Rage song followed; instead, Tim McIlrath came out to join Morello for the final song, something he’d written in support of Korean guitar makers who’d been sacked for starting a union. The chorus melody reminded me far too strongly of ‘Centrefold’ by the J Geils Band, which is never a pleasant occurrence on a Wednesday evening.
With Morello gone from the stage the way was clear for Rise Against to light it up, which they did by opening up with ‘Architects’ from their most recent release Endgame. They ploughed through their set with aplomb and demonstrated a degree of showmanship I haven’t seen from them before; during changeovers when McIlrath was receiving or surrendering his guitar, for example, the lights went down and atmospheric trip-hop (or similar) started up, in stark contrast to Tom Morello standing about and fiddling with his mouth organ while nothing else went on around him. Unfortunately they seemed to suffer from sound issues; while Polar Bear Club’s sound was well-balanced, Joe and Zach’s backing vocals were virtually inaudible and even Tim had to struggle to make himself heard. In addition, Tim’s voice didn’t seem to be on top form, particularly notable during ‘Survive’ (which is not, in fairness, an easy song to sing).
The lack of polish showed in other areas as well. ‘Audience Of One’ was particularly sloppy and ‘Chamber The Cartridge’ showed signs of the band struggling to keep up with their own tempo. That said, songs like ‘Give It All’ and the welcome inclusion of ‘Heaven Knows’ (sadly the only song to feature off Revolutions Per Minute; The Unravelling didn’t even get a single track played from it) were hammered through with the sort of virtuoso perfection that one would expect from an experienced band with a monstrous touring history behind them. They took a break towards the end for Tim to play ‘Swing Life Away’ on his acoustic, then was joined by Zach for ‘Hero Of War’ (thankfully, no-one waved their lighters this time; last time they played Rock City a lot of the crowd didn’t seem to realise that it’s an ironic and scathing song about war crimes perpetrated by American soldiers, not a ballad). The inevitable encore saw them end with ‘Savior’, which for me personally was drawn out too long for Zach to widdle around on his guitar, but finished the gig off with a pleasantly high-tempo punch nonetheless. It left me wanting more of their older material, but as the band moves forward and releases more and more commercially-successful albums they will understandably abandon the older songs in favour of the ones that weren’t released when their new fans were still in primary school. That said, I still want to one day see them play ‘Black Masks & Gasoline’ or ‘Broken English’ live.
For most people, this is where the evening would have ended in terms of live music. However, due to the fact that I know some awesome people, my night relocated to a house not far away where Polar Bear Club, for reasons best known to themselve’s, had agreed to come and play an acoustic set. It was just gone 11pm when Jimmy, Nate and Chris walked in to the living room, picked up the two guitars left for their use and proceeded to play half a dozen songs for the thirty or so people who had crowded in to see them. They started out with ‘Burned Out In A Jar’ and played four songs of their own plus one cover (of a band that I didn’t catch the name of), and finished on ‘Living Saints’. Unwilling to let them leave, the living room cried “one more!” and the New Yorkers dutifully played ‘Religion On The Radio’ before making their jet lag-based excuses and exiting the building. The intimate environment allowed Jimmy to put a little less power into his vocals and highlighted exactly how well he can sing, even on his second gig of the evening. More impressively for me was the fact that this band, with international record releases and on the first night of their UK tour with Rise Against and Tom Morello, were willing to come and play for half an hour in the living room of a student house in exchange for whatever money could be garnered via a voluntary donation system simply because someone had contacted their booking agent and asked if they would. That, my friends, is the sort of spirit that deserves our respect.