Review: Peter, Bjorn & John @ Pabst Theater

Photo by CJ Foeckler/Pabst Theater

Photo by CJ Foeckler/Pabst Theater

Review by Amy Elliott

I have to admit, I’ve been feeling alienated by Living Thing, the new Peter, Bjorn & John album that (if you don’t count a few blippy solo albums in between) follows up their 2006 indie smash Writer’s Block. I don’t need to go on about it – plenty of other people have, and this is about the SHOW! – but where Writer’s Block was sweeping and poppy, Living Thing, while thoughtful, is stripped down, and a little on the brainy side. Nothing sweeping, no jingling, no whistling or cute little hand claps. Lots of disciplined distance. The Pabst Theater’s press release went so far as to describe the songs on the new album as “icy dreamscapes.” Ugh.

So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the show, and from the start it had me on the defensive: what’s with these all-black clothes? That stupid backdrop that just says “backdrop” over and over in white letters on black panels? Come on, guys, do you honestly think this will help you get over your album that no one really likes that much?

The stage was flooded in every manner of strobes, stage fog, popping searchlights and frenetic dance-club pulses of color (epileptics be damned!), but the band members were almost always backlit, in shadow, or obscured by effects. Usually, a live show – especially at a venue as small as the Pabst – makes you feel closer to the performers, but for the first half-dozen songs, I felt like I was watching the show on a 10-year-old DVD. I found myself asking, What are you trying to hide behind?

But as soon as they kicked into the big songs from the new album, starting with huge, banging piano bass on “It Don’t Move Me,” something changed. In person, Living Thing‘s anthems sounded sweeter, closer. It sounded like the album the band almost made, an album that’s warm, dance-y, and a little tongue-in-cheek. Even “Lay it Down” (with a rousing chorus of “Shut the fuck up, boy/You are starting to piss me off”) lost the salt; it was all bubbles, fun and cute, Swedish Peter jumping around the purple stage like a teenager. “Living Thing” lurched through a post-modern Chuck Berry/Paul Simon groove; “Let’s Call if Off” (a Writer’s Block single) was cloaked in smoke (“Smoke!” drummer John kept shouting between songs. “I’m not kidding! SMOKE!”) and fuzzy snares, and in their show-stopping (literally) delivery of “Objects of Affection,” everyone in the audience clapped in rollicking 6/8 time (when the rhythm died down, Peter stopped between phrases and gulped, as if in the throes of something carnal, “Keep going”) before Bjorn and Peter dropped into tender, unaccompanied whispers.

It’s been a long time since I’ve heard an audience start a slow clap for an encore, but it happened tonight, and when they came back on stage, they were like an entirely different band. Peter shed his black tux jacket for a plaid shirt and khakis and Bjorn had buttoned down. During “Young Folks,” in which an amazingly tall man played the bongos, Peter whistled and chk-chk-chked along, then sat himself down at the foot of the stage, dangling his legs into the dancing audience and shaking his shaker with an easy, adorable sense of fun.

Really, it was oddly heartwarming, watching this band start at a point of detached, posturing (might I say “icy”) theatricality and move from there to engaged, then joyful, and finally abandoning the affect and plunging feet-first into the unselfconscious glee of the performance.

Or maybe it was just the light show.

PS: There’s nothing much to say about the openers, Chairlift (you may know them from an iPod commercial), except that their synth player was wearing a sequined sweater-cape, making her the Rick Wakeman of annoying indie synth bands, only with no sense of humor and an affected British accent. Seriously lady, if you banter like you’re from Ohio, we’ll know you’re faking it if you sing like you’re in Duran Duran.

Rick Wakeman in Yes, circa 1972

Rick Wakeman in Yes, circa 1972


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2 Responses to “Review: Peter, Bjorn & John @ Pabst Theater”

  1. Jon Says:

    Nice review. Do you by chance have the set list written down?

  2. spanghew Says:

    Uh, the backdrop with the word BACKDROP is a nod to the CD cover, which features a drawing in which the chair is outlined by repetitions of the word CHAIR, the table TABLE, etc.

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