The band isn't that popular and they certainly aren't mainstream anymore either. Their past three albums -- "Lucky," "If I had a Hi-Fi" and "The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy" -- could be read as metaphors for the waves subsequently felt by critics and fans after each release. "Lucky" (2008) established Nada Surf as as a band with serious pretensions at a time when the music industry was being transformed from a label-based, CD-distribution model to a studio-based, peer-to-peer model. As a result, the New Yorkers developed fans they never would have had, but "Hi-Fi" (2010), an album of cover songs, passed many of us by with little fanfare -- and judging from Pitchfork and the charts, a degree of indifference took hold.
Which is why I was happy that the audience was so engaged this past Monday at Old Rock House. First, I was happy that the sound they represent -- earnest guitar riffs and even more earnest lyrics -- isn't going away. Second, that the band that made the song "See These Bones" a remarkable anthem worthy of R.E.M. or the Pixies back in 2008 wasn't reduced to dust, despite lyrics like, "Just like we are, you'll be dust." It was the highlight of the night for me but left an odd longing. Why couldn't every song they play be like this?
Nada Surf doesn't exactly disappoint, but they don't overwhelm either. Those coming to see a band like Weezer or Death Cab for Cutie won't get anything close. They are a band of anti-hits, with an anti-hipster style to boot and a stubborn integrity that borders on pathological. I've heard others comment that they sound best in a studio (who doesn't?) and that their live stuff tends towards well-practiced jam-bandiness.
This latest performance didn't prove otherwise. The vocals could have been a little louder or the drums a bit softer, and the tempo changes should have been more pronounced. All in all, the show lacked the nuance that fills their records, but it still delivered some fine moments -- especially "Jules and Jim" and "Let the Fight Do the Fighting," both songs that show Nada Surf's depth and set the band apart. Does that sound like equivocation from a wannabe fan? Maybe, maybe not.
The opening band, WATERS, was a perfect lead-in for Nada Surf. These guys are so raw they make Jon Voight in "Midnight Cowboy" look like a well-heeled veteran. When their singer, a youngin' out of San Francisco named Van Pierszalowski, gathered in the crowd for an a capella number, I almost felt bad for him. Just last month, I'd seen Israel Nebeker from Blind Pilot do the same to great effect, but these guys seemed too eager too pull it off. To the contrary, he got an audience as his chorus, and made my cynical and stodgy self feel ashamed at my premature embarrassment.
After WATERS and Nada Surf, I made a small mental note to myself. Relax your expectations a bit man and let it flow; sometimes a little earnestness is what you need.