I admit, my curiosity was piqued too: Would Edwards and his band delight us with acoustic chamber-pop, a-la 2006's debut "The Dust of Retreat," or would the band fall into the more up-tempo, power-rock anger of his more recent efforts, as heard on 2010's "Buzzard" or 2012's "Rot Gut, Domestic"? We closed around the stage with hungry ears to find out.
The second of two openers, the three-piece Dinosaur Feathers, offered an envious brand of sun-pepped, surfer rock that reminded of the Dodos wrapped in a cloak of Kings of Leon. Filled with impressive drop-time, rim-shot moments and a cappella-fueled bridges, Dinosaur Feathers' sound cut a surprising swathe through what would normally be garden-variety, college-radio, indie-rock fare. Plus, drummer Nick Brooks' sweet mohawk added a nice subversive element to the proceedings.
The six-piece Margot and the Nuclear So and So's appeared before us, and with full distortion dialed on their four, yes four, guitars (plus the lap-steel of Erik Kang), blasted into "Books About Trains," from 2012's "Rot Gut, Domestic." Clearly, it was to be a raucous, post-R.E.M.-type evening, laden with Edwards' heart-spun and forlornly-taciturn, better-off-without-her lyrics.
My favorite moment of the evening occurred during "Claws Off" from 2010's "Buzzard," which attained a perfect verisimilitude to the rollicking album version, replete with clanging drums, Tyler Watkins' heady bass-thrum and wonderful choral instrumental breaks surrounding Edwards' relationship-reducing vocals: "If you want to go, get lost. If you want to stay, shut up."
On "A Children's Crusade On Acid," on both of 2008's "Animal!" and "Not Animal," Kang pealed off country-howl-esque sounds from his lap steel. Edwards' copious drug references, laid over a base coat of relationship strain, placed the song firmly in the mode where the man feels most comfortable: lamenting life, love and consciousness, smoking cigarettes, watching the city and its people -- its drug-addled children -- turn to shit from a high-rise window, "I smile so hard it hurts just when things get worse."
"Broadripple Is Burning" found the audience singing along with Edwards as he stood alone on the stage holding an acoustic guitar and wearing a crooked smile on his tour-worn and bristled face. The band returned to enliven the audience again with the four-guitar distortion of "New York City Hotel Blues." Edwards sang, "I'm not going to break your heart unless I have to" as the cymbals and drums clattered over a cacophony of strings and warm bass.
"Prozac Rock," the single from "Rot Gut, Domestic," played like a '90s radio hit and acted as a vehicle for more drug-based lamenting: "Tell me what you have been doing while I've been getting high." Fan-favorite "Skeleton Key" from "The Dust of Retreat" was a bit too up-tempo and abrasive compared to its delightfully subdued album counterpart and (I imagine) prompted every person in the venue to lean into the ear of whatever cohort they were parked beside and whisper, "This song is like totally about me and my past relationship with so and so..." Perhaps this is what Edwards does so well -- making heartache accessible -- which in turn makes his music accessible. It's a neat trick, one more artists ought to be hip to.
Edwards wound down with "Ludlow Junk Hustle" and "Shannon" both from "Rot Gut, Domestic," which to my tastes were too jagged and grungy compared to what I rolled to the Firebird expecting. Toward the end of "Shannon" Edwards screamed, "I don't want to be your friend Shannon!" like some power-rock dictator.
Margot and the Nuclear So and So's encored with "Talking in Code," which thankfully returned the vibe to 2006's dusty chamber-pop. "The Devil" and "Christ" both from "Rot Got, Domestic" featured a nice theological duality in closing out the band's work for the evening, but did little to raise the high-water mark past moments already attained earlier in the evening.
The audience left happy and wistful, fueled by tunes both aggressive and "Quiet as a Mouse" (to quote one of Edwards' un-played songs), but I felt somehow hollow, as if the band I thought I was going to see didn't match up with the band I had witnessed. It is clear Margot and the Nuclear So and So's are caught in an identity crisis, stuck between the softness of "The Dust of Retreat," and the rock-angst of "Buzzard" and beyond.