One could say the sea of flannel at the House of Blues last Wednesday night meant the warm-and-fuzzies were downright tangible. We’ve come to expect nothing less than this ethos from Noah and the Whale, whose sunny, catchy pop-folk tunes have likely wound their way into your head through one indie commercial or another. While their latest albums have taken a more sober turn, the relentless optimism of the evening was firmly decided by the swirls of chimes, tambourine and mystical maracas that accompanied the band as they hopped out on stage.
Slight, dapper front man Charlie Fink and his equally sharp-suited band mates assembled before a slightly subdued, eclectic crowd of high-school fangirls, happy couples and a similarly suited after-work crowd. The mixture might have been odd, but instead fueled exactly the sort of weirdly heartwarming, group-hug enthusiasm you want from a Noah and the Whale show.
The band established the night’s definitively cheery trajectory by opening with “Tonight’s the Kind of Night,” one of the more popular songs from their 2011 album, Last Night on Earth. Interestingly enough, their current Heart of Nowhere tour is to promote their 2013 album of the same name. But the recently released album probably has yet to find its way into the nostalgic corner of the heart where most fans store their fondness for Noah and the Whale, which perhaps explains the proceeding set's mildly puzzling lack of new songs.
Next up was “Give It All Back,” followed by “Jocasta,” both from earlier albums. While the audience displayed strong enthusiasm, especially for the musical styling of the swaggering violinist Tom Hobden, they still wanted something more. And it wasn’t from Heart of Nowhere. “Play LIFEGOESON!” cried a flannelled fan. After some charming British banter and one song from Heart of Nowhere (“Lifetime”), Charlie Fink acquiesced.
What followed was an undeniably infectious deluge of dapper, danceable rock from Noah and the Whale’s deliciously twee earlier album, Peaceful, The World Lays Me Down, as well as some from Last Night on Earth. The band truly hit their stride with their anthemic numbers, which rang somehow more sincere than sticky sweet in the live space. Balloons and strobe lights accompanied the swelling, bombastic and string-filled rock-out in “Give a Little Love,” while the audience was persuaded by Fink to fill in for the band’s gospel choir, whose bus had apparently broken down, on “Old Joy.” By the time the band broke into “Blue Skies,” we could taste the cloying undertone of heartbreak that keeps us coming back to Noah and the Whale. But it wasn’t until after fizzy crowd-pleasers like “2 Atoms in a Molecule” and “Shape of My Heart” that we could glimpse it further.
For the latter half of the show, even the guys in suits couldn’t help but dance. While the band showcased their more mellow side with the occasional interjection from Heart of Nowhere, the audience seemed to want none of it. One was left with the sense that the band, at least in this live show, was trapped by the giddy affection of the audience for their older sound. As an ebullient audience buzzed with chants of "fun, fun, fun" in the "sun, sun, sun" to "5 Years Time," the show bopped to an end in a way that seemed to affirm the rightful order of things in the universe.
Or so we thought. Noah and the Whale bounded back onstage for an encore that reminded us not to forget that behind the giddy, almost adolescent sentimentality of their happier hits is a deep, raw sense of melancholy backed by intricate and moving musicianship. It’s indicative of fans’ attachment to the band that they were willing to make the stark shift to the aching heartache of “First Day of Spring.” The epic strings swelling to the cathartic closing crescendo left the audience satisfied – if nostalgic for those hyperbolic dynamics and restrained anguish that seem absent in their more recent work.
Though the show was heavy on the pep, fans left with Noah and the Whale’s potential for superb somber tunes fresh on their mind – hopefully piquing their interest just enough for them to give Heart of Nowhere, so conspicuously missing from the show itself, an eager listen.