Tuesday, September 25, 2018

This Is the The Day: After 18 Years Off the Road, Matt Johnson Remains the Definite Article -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

The The
w/ opening act Agnes Obel
September 22, 2018
Riviera Theatre, Chicago

This will undoubtedly sound like the insipid nadir of music criticism, but I think bigger fans of the The enjoyed were apt to enjoy their Comeback Special tour stop at the Riv far more than I did.

Obviously, this true at most concerts, with greater inherent affinity abetting the live experience.

But though I enjoyed the The's show far more than I didn't, the truth is that I've never been much of a fan of the enterprise that has been essentially English singer/songwriter Matt Johnson and various collaborators over the years. 

This isn't to say I had a knowing aversion, I just didn't--despite being aware of the quirky name and cognizant years ago of a friend's fandom--ever come to know much the The music.

Before I started Spotifamiliarizing myself for Saturday's show--based on setlists this summer that largely held--only "This is the Day" was readily familiar, probably from its use in TV, movies and commercials. "Uncertain Smile" and "Infected" were vaguely so and nothing else really was.

When the The's first Chicago show in 25 years--if Setlist.fm can be trusted, for although there was a 2000 tour, it seemingly didn't hit these parts--was announced in the spring, my pal Paolo (a different friend than the one cited just above but also a rather ardent fan) suggested I join him. 

In recent years, I've made a point of seeing several artists I'd never seen previously, particularly among the British '80s New Wave: New Order, Duran Duran, Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, the Church, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Jesus & Mary Chain, Johnny Marr and others.  

I don't know how properly the The fits into this classification, but it's not like they needed to in order to pique my interest, and I agreed to accompany Paolo. 

In recent months, and especially weeks, I started listening to what I thought might get played, so by showtime I was pretty familiar with most of the songs, at least sonically. 

But this I realize, is far different than knowing the The's catalog historically or innately. 

I wasn't familiar with the Soul Mining album from the time it was released in 1983, and unlike for one of my pals, 1989's Mind Bomb--with songs like "The Beat(en) Generation" and "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)"--didn't accompany a still-thriving courtship. 

So for me, this Comeback Special didn't signal the return of an act I'd loved in my teens--or my 20s, 30s or 40s for that matter--but rather a band (and chief impresario) I'd been given reason to respect, yet didn't inherently relish.

And even though there was clear quality in several of the songs I had come to know, for the most part I wouldn't say I quite loved them. 

The The's sound seems to be more one of muted observation, rather than melodic lilt or--as I truly prefer--crunchy guitar-driven urgency. 

With due respect for anyone who makes music upon a stage, Saturday's show was not greatly abetted by opening act Agnes Obel, a Danish singer accompanied by another female keyboardist and two cellists. 

Some of the music made was pleasant enough, but while atonal probably isn't a fair word, it was so melodically subdued as to make the The akin to Rolling Stones in comparison. 

But they aren't the Stones, and though amiably articulate, Matt Johnson isn't Mick Jagger.

The The's 2-hour set began with the five piece band (including Johnson) shrouded in darkness as they played "Global Eyes" from 2000's Naked Self album. (I liked the lyrical puns.)

As the lights rose so too did the tenor of the music, and a few songs in the trio of "Heartland," "The Beat(en) Generation" and "Armageddon Days are Here (Again)" was undeniably enjoyable. 

Earl Harvin added some powerful drumming to "Beyond Love," and his thunderous intro to "Infected" much later on was another highlight. 

I can name a few other songs I particularly enjoyed--"Love Is Stronger Than Death," "Slow Emotion Replay," "This Is the Day," though it didn't quite sparkle like I'd hoped, and "Uncertain Smile"--but if you're reading this, chances are you know these and other tunes played far better than I. (See the setlist here.)

I don't think there's much wrong with seeing a band I hadn't really known, hearing songs I predominantly like more than love, thinking it was a quality but not astonishing show and awarding a solid @@@@ (on my 5@ scale). 

I was contented in my expenditure of time and money to see the The, and while I'm not sure I need to see them again--heck, I could be nearly 70 before provided another chance--I'm glad I'm more aware of Johnson and his oeuvre.

My sense from some other fans sitting near Paolo and me in the Riviera balcony--admittedly not the early birds--was that they probably appreciated the show on a similar level. 

But having heard from friends who dubbed it a great show, I felt I should qualify why I probably didn't attend with the same inherent anticipation. 

Which to some degree, lends itself to why--despite enjoying the The show--I can't effuse to that extent. 

But quite honestly, I love when people love a concert far more than I. On this blog, I share my opinion about almost any show I see--regardless of the fervor of my fandom beforehand--and I'm not looking to convince anyone of my opinion. 

And I can clearly recognize how, for some, the long-awaited return of the The was a sentimental, special, perhaps even holy occasion, and I've experienced enough of those to be happy even if I didn't this time. 

Interestingly, though, after the The finished playing, I asked Paolo--again, a much more avid, longstanding fan than I--how he would grade it on a @@@@@ scale. 

And he said "@@@@."

He related having seen the The with a larger, more symphonic lineup and soundscape in the past, and agreed that "This is the Day" didn't feel as blissful as hoped. 

So maybe I'm not showing my callowness all that much in thinking it was a good show by a quality act making a welcome return, but perhaps not quite the The greatest thing ever.

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