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It was one helluva anniversary: Montreal’s Handsome Furs make minimalistic indie rock whose hopeful, searching tones never wholly camouflage a certain postmillenial anxiety, and there’s nothing in it you’d call “cute.” Not so last night. The husband-and-wife duo—Dan Boeckner, who shares frontman duties in Wolf Parade, and Alexei Perry—commemorated their second year of marriage with a keyed-up crowd at the Black Cat, torpedoing through the best parts of their two-album catalog (and a pair of new songs suggesting fresh sonic territory). Throughout the evening, they often stepped back from their mics to join foreheads and noses; in forceful numbers like “Talking Hotel Arbat Blues” and “Nyet Spasiba,” the two lunged at each other with an erotic charge.
Often, Handsome Furs’ songs thrive on tension, but in concert the prevailing mode was ease. “I almost barfed” backstage, Boeckner joked at one point. “I still barfed,” Perry quipped back, but it was hard to believe them: They were having too much fun.
Bantering, Boeckner employed a pithiness appropriate to his songs’ concision: He introduced one as “another song about the cops”; another was inspired by “an Errol Morris film called Transformers 2” ; he described the album highlight “Evangeline” as “a song about fucking” (Big Black surely would have been proud).
And the set corrected the flaws in Handsome Furs’ ebullient, if meandering, new album, Face Control, lending the anthems—”I’m Confused,” the infectious “Radio Kaliningrad”—a high emotional pitch while mostly eschewing the record’s more tangential moments (the instrumental numbers are parenthetically titled and parenthetical in deed). Choruses and codas soared but never overstretched; no song’s ideas felt exploited. If Boeckner and Perry wink at a certain epically scaled ’70s rock—think Darkness On The Edge Of Town—they also value economy.
Meanwhile, their presence was electric. He, sinewy and punkish, jolted convulsively as he strummed and sang. She—with her golden bob, ’80s Madonna-style cross earrings, and polka dot leggings—was a miracle of movement, thrusting push-up-style at her keyboard and, once or twice, throwing a leg above her head. Boeckner’s guitar was crunchy and insistent, echoing the polished post-punk of The Teardrop Explodes, and his growling vocals suggested Ian Curtis by way of Neil Diamond (unfailing alchemy in this critic’s book). Perry, for her part, tickled each song with luminous synth gurgles and karate-chop beats.
The opener, the Harrisonburg and Staunton, Va.-based Cinnamon Band, shared some of Handsome Furs’ taste for the epic-in-miniature, but otherwise seemed an odd fit for the headliner’s natural constituency. This duo favored one shade of the ’90s alt-rock paradigm, the stuff made by kids who listened to The Replacements and Uncle Tupelo and grew up to form, say, The Gin Blossoms. If Handsome Furs and Cinnamon Band share a particular debt to Springsteen, then the former has directly tapped the source while the latter merely skims off of the diminishing returns of its influence.
The audience—and I—got a much bigger kick out of Dri, the main project of Adrianne Verhoeven, formerly of The Anniversary. In recent years, this big-voiced blond has traded idiosyncratic emo for blue-eyed reggae and soul, an aesthetic that caught the audience off guard last night but quickly won it over. During the slower, more searching moments, the five-piece suggested Beach House for the Bonnaroo set, with autumnal organ and Verhoeven’s honeyed vocals set to her freewheeling, groove-oriented backing band. The summery reggae songs, meanwhile, weighed jagged, Clash-like stomps against sunny, watery guitar licks.
Near the end of Handsome Furs’ main set, both openers returned, with each of their members carrying a rose for Perry from Boeckner. She blushed and smiled before throwing the flowers into the audience like a wedding bouquet (whoever caught it would get “leprosy in the next year,” Boeckner said with a grin), and the two quickly made out before closing with “Radio Kaliningrad.” “I live the most romantic life in the world,” Perry said demurely, having returned for an encore. “Thanks so much for being part of it.”
Photo by Benjamin Freed