July 23, 2007
Better than: My last birthday party.
By Jason Harper
You're in a Scottish band that was at its commercial and critical peak back when Coldplay was hot. It's your birthday and you're playing a show at a midsize venue in a college town in the summertime, when all the kids are away. It's a Monday night. Tickets to see you are $35. What do you do?
If you're Fran Healy, frontman of Travis, you rock out and have fun. Then you blow out your candles and have a piece of cake.
After entering from the back of the venue to the theme from Rocky, the men of Travis, clad in brightly colored boxing robes, mounted the balloon-littered stage, took their guitars from their roadies, and launched into "Selfish Jean," off the band's new one, The Boy With No Name.
The crowd was small, but, according to signs around the venue, "the artist" had asked that the balcony be closed off, so everyone was funneled down front. Despite looking up to an empty balcony all night, Healy and co. gave it their all, apparently pulling out some tricks they've used before.
Halfway through the show, the band decided to salute its touring keyboardist, a Swede named Claus. As the light panels spelled the chap's name, his bandmates donned white shirts emblazoned with the Claus logo, secondary only to the logo of Travis itself. (By the way, what is it with those British bands and their logos: Blur, Oasis, etc? Do the White Stripes need a logo? The Foo Fighters?) Healy instructed the crowd to chant "Claus!" and point at the abashed Scandinavian during the piano solo in the song they were about to play, "Good Feeling" from the band's first and loudest-rocking album. The scenario was much the same as in this YouTube video I just stumbled upon, which was shot last month in Paris. Healy's even wearing the same shirt that he wore most of last night's show, except, of course, when band and roadies put on their Claus shirts:
A few more songs ("Sing," "All I Wanna Do Is Rock," "Battleships"), an encore featuring an unamplified number by Healy on solo acoustic, then ... time for cake!
After the distribution of sweets to the audience, Healy's bandmates gathered around him for a sing-along to "Flowers in the Window" -- again, like they've done before. And when they closed with crowd pleaser "Why Does It Always Rain On Me," Healy paused the song before the last chorus and encouraged the crowd to "pogo" up and down throughout the end because it would make us all feel 10 years younger. I'm not going to look for that one on YouTube.
But I'm not complaining -- it was all new to me before YT ruined it (really, though, it was Google's fault for directing me to the work of this band's amateur videographers, a group of which I am now a part). And plenty of bands don't even try to appeal to the audience's desire to have fun and be playful. Hell, if I'd been Healy, I would have been annoyed that during much of my 34th birthday party, drunk Kansans were yelling at me to play "Rain On Me" -- whether they'd paid to be there or not!
The only thing that bothered me about the show was being reminded that -- oh, yeah -- the average Travis song is rather soft and ineffectual. This band and its contemporaries -- the aforementioned Coldplay, plus Starsailor, Doves, Ash and the like, many of whom I still enjoy -- came along at a moment when earnestness and lack of irony were welcome. Back when rock could get away with being pretty.
Now, I'm the last person who'd ever force a discussion of the Iraq War into a music review, but have you noticed how this kind of music has been in decline since fairly soon after that war began? And it's not like these bands weren't aware of world developments. Nowadays, American audiences crave stuff that's really gripping and expressive (hardcore emo, the Arcade Fire), highly escapist (Christina Aguilera and other pop idols, including mainstream rap; the Decemberists) or archly ironic (mash-ups, CSS, hipster dance music).
There's a certain ugliness, or grotesqueness, at least, that comes with things that are extreme (Fear Factor, Extreme Makeover), and there just isn't any of that in Travis' music. It's sweet, fun, greeting-card guitar pop, and when it wasn't too innocuous to be worth paying attention to, I enjoyed the hell out of it last night.
It was as though the band wanted to say "Yes, there's a war going on outside, but inside, here, we're having cake and singing 'Happy Birthday.'"
Personal Bias: I'm all about soft, pretty, unironic Britpop. Take Elbow. Elbow is a band with an even more ridiculous name (and a far prettier sound) than Travis, but, GOD, I fuckin' love 'em.
Random Detail: Once, a film starring Glen Hansard of Brit(Irish)pop band the Frames, is showing at Liberty Hall.
By the way: It is because you lied when you were 17.