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Friday, September 21, 2018

City

Bleachers, Antonoff make Houston debut at Fitzgerald’s


Most notably known for his role in fun., Jack Antonoff led his new indie-outfit Bleachers in their Saturday night performance at Fitzgerald's.  |  Cara Smith/The Cougar

Best-known for his role in fun., Jack Antonoff led his new indie-outfit Bleachers in their Saturday night performance at Fitzgerald’s.  |   Cara Smith/The Cougar

Jack Antonoff is a frontman, through and through.

Most might not assume this, as the mainstream has him labeled as the guitarist of the indie-pop outfit fun. and not much else. But over the past year, Antonoff has managed to bridge the gap between indie and mainstream, redefining himself — or maybe showing off who he’s been all along — via his new project, Bleachers.

It’s not a side project, he’ll (rightfully) insist, and it’s off to a hell of a start — Bleachers’ debut LP, “Strange Desire,” has been met with overwhelming praise, with the Alternative Press going so far as to say that listeners are “unlikely to hear a more earnest album than Bleachers’ ‘Strange Desire’ this year.”

Bleachers filled Fitzgerald’s to the rafters on Saturday night for the band’s inaugural show in Houston. Fitzgerald’s, a venue rich in hosting historic acts and small in capacity, might not seem like the standard for a band that’s drawing such heavy press. But the artist-to-audience intimacy Fitz provides is something Antonoff has been craving, perhaps after years of touring with a Grammy-winning band in stadiums around the globe.

An ear-to-ear grin rarely left the his face; a winded “you guys are (expletive) great” came to be the official signal of a song’s ending. He chatted up the audience as much as time would allow, it seemed, bouncing back and forth like a kid who had been stuck on a tour bus one hour too many, emphasizing at least three times the familial nature of Houston and the city pride its residents showed.

“Houston, you’re going to be the show to beat,” he said wearily. “And I’m not saying that every city is like this — trust me, not every place we go to is packed like this.”

Strange Desire debuted at #11 on the Billboard 200.  |  Courtesy of RCA Records

Strange Desire debuted at #11 on the Billboard 200.  |  Courtesy of RCA Records

Why each city can’t cough up a couple hundred fans, I’ll never know. It’s shocking enough, aside from the band’s reception, that Bleachers is even booking these small venues — “Strange Desire” has an atmospheric sound, backed with thick, gloppy beats that are just begging to swell and fill up an amphitheater.

Much of the album’s inspiration can be pulled from the ‘80s Top 40 charts. Whether it’s the bright, tropical riffs and space-age synth of “Shadow” or “Wake Me,” a millennial’s Bruce Springsteen ballad produced on a MacBook, “Strange Desire” belongs to a different era.

But Antonoff’s music has no problem resonating with today’s listeners. So much of the audience shouted along to each song as if it had been playing on the radio for weeks. There wasn’t a track Bleachers played that wasn’t received with pure hysteria, and that’s including Antonoff’s acoustic rendition of “Bullet,” a song released four years ago with Steel Train, the band he was headlining at the time.

Fans weren’t just there for Bleachers, they were there for Antonoff — during the acoustic “Bullet,” it was hard to find a fan in the house that wasn’t belting back the lyrics. (Noticeably, he didn’t play or mention fun.; he’s tired of being pigeonholed.)

That kind of dedication doesn’t come around often, and it’s a testament to how much of himself Antonoff discloses in his lyrics. At the show, emotion carried from Antonoff to his audience seamlessly, in a way that’s unique to smaller venues like Fitzgerald’s. In a leading role, he’s a sight to behold. He holds nothing back, performing each song with as much gusto and raw thrill as a dedicated audience demands. I’ve seen him perform with fun. twice, and this was most visibly happy I’ve seen Antonoff on stage.

He commanded the room jovially, naturally, like a guy that’s been wanting to do this for a while. And for a band whose songs are composed of many different moving parts — “all essential” according to Vince Clarke of Depeche Mode and Erasure, who collaborated with Antonoff on the album — the quality of “Strange Desire” remained pristine, even enhanced in a live environment. Maybe that’s because “Strange Desire” is an album heavily built on the frontman’s emotions, but Saturday’s performance felt less like an orchestrated show and more a sonic conversation, fluid and effortless. Antonoff looked like he belonged up there, and he didn’t seem too keen on leaving, returning to the stage for two encore songs.

“Strange Desire” may belong to a different era, but I sure am glad it’s in this one.

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