It’s safe to say that you can fairly truthfully deem a band “good” after seeing them in what must be one of the mostly poorly designed venues and they still put on a great show. The Basement subtly takes its name from the fact that it’s underground, literally filling the space below a rock & roll bar. But it’s probably better (and much cheaper) to see a show in an actual basement than this PromoWest-owned knockoff. It’s stuffy, over-crowded and designed so that only a handful of spectators (those lucky four or five rows in the pit) can actually see the band. In that respect, it’s kind of like a real basement, but lacking the authenticity. Why would I want to pay top-dollar to see a show here? If you are not one of those people up front, you are most likely stuck behind a pillar, crammed along the side, perched precariously on two steps, or sitting at the bar (having given up), watching it on a small television with poor reception. At any rate, it was here that I finally had the chance to catch Surfer Blood, passing through town on a supporting tour with ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead. Blood equals death—it kind of works.
Surfer Blood was one of the great surprise additions to the music scene in late 2009, with their debut album, Astro Coast, lauded by Pitchfork, SPIN, and even Rolling Stone. They’re also one of the few in a slew of ’90s throwbacks that have managed to live up to the hype, despite (pardon the pun) riding its wave for quite a while now. After seeing them live, it’s clear that the accolades are warranted, as Surfer Blood managed to put on a live show with all the youthful energy and effervescence that Astro Coast delivered, and then some.
Gone was the visibly bashful band that took the stage to help tune instruments (well, frontman John Paul Pitts at least), replaced by self-assured, mature young men. They began the set with the album opener, “Floating Vibes,” which was a smart choice, a way to make the audience feel comfortable, as many people (with the exception of those lucky few pit-goers) were undoubtedly just biding their time before Trail of Dead. As the band blasted their way through what was, essentially, the whole of Astro Coast, plus two new songs, Pitts, the lively, perpetually sarcastic spokesman of the group, played emcee and comedian. It would have been annoying if it weren’t so genuinely amusing and endearing. I suppose he set the tempo for their set when he glanced mischievously down at the precarious railing lining the stage, positing, “How sturdy do you think this really is?” Suffice it to say, before the night was over, he found out (it held, thankfully). That wasn’t the end of it, though. As Pitts effectively captained the band along, with a voice not unlike, say, Morrissey tinged with Isaac Brock’s deep-throated yell, he flailed all over the stage, at one point grabbing and donning the hat of an onlooker. He sang directly in the face of doe-eyed girls, and another instant, he hopped right into the audience and finished his song encircled by a delighted crowd. Invariably, though, the best musical moments came during a frenetic rendition of the wordless “Neighbour Riffs,” which showed off the band’s cumulative guitar prowess.
At times, Surfer Blood’s overabundant use of cultural references—the only true giveaway of their age, aside from their looks—verged on Vampire Weekend territory (that is, annoying). It’s just too much pop culture within pop culture, and sometimes, I just wanted to soak up my own experience without being bombarded by cultural allusions and name-dropping. It’s an outlandish complaint, I know, but as long as Pitts et al. don’t start wearing Topsiders and polos with popped collars I’ll be satisfied.
After a comparatively mild interpretation of the song that got them noticed, “Swim,” to bring the evening full-circle, the lads sauntered off the stage. It bears noting that although Surfer Blood is certainly not the most experienced, tightest or even the most innovative band, what they lack they make up for with sheer exuberance.