Brooklyn-based brothers Robert And David Perlick-Molinari, aka French Horn Rebellion, took the stage to droning, overlapping keyboards, flashing lights signifying a storm, and a recording of the sound of rain (as if we don't get enough rain in Taipei...). Brother Robert held a French Horn over his head like Excalibur and I thought, "Oh, they were serious about that French horn thing." Well, not really. It's hard to say French Horn Rebellion are serious about much, if you've ever watched their videos. But they do make some quality music, IMO, so it's not all a joke.
What I Want, my favorite by FHR, began the show, a song with a strong beat and powerful keyboard lines thickly packed one atop the other. Robert summoned us to party and pump our fists and but didn't receive much more than some head-nodding instead. I'd say that was an ill-fated effort, as it was only about 8:45 pm and Taipei folks don't usually head out the door to party till around midnight. I could see their set doing well late at night, when the crowd would be warmed-up, after a few other bands or DJs and a bit of alcohol. But it is what it is.
The French horn proved to be more than a prop (barely), as Robert started blowing during a breakdown, but it was a bit hard to hear. They also employed a live drummer somewhere behind them, but it was also a challenge to determine exactly what his contribution was. What was clear all throughout were the beats, the synths, and the keyboards, their bread and butter. It was heavy on the funky disco side, à la Lipps, Inc (Funkytown) or really early Prince, and laden with 80's hooks.
So here's what we've got: 2 brothers, 2 laptops, some keyboards and synths, and a negligible live drummer and French horn. Hmm. I'm always kinda left wondering how to watch or respond when at a show like this, where the performers are pretty much rooted to one (computerized) spot. Keytars aren't the answer - they're just inherently dorky, an admission that keyboards just aren't so rock. Xiao Ying 小應 of the Clippers 夾子 is the only one I've seen pull off a keytar. So, how would these guys try to make their show work? With a touch of vaudeville (Spoiler alert: Xiao Ying 小應 is also the only one I've ever seen succeed at that, too)
This Moment led to a failed brother-on-brother dance-off and then to a failed MC Hammer rap, and a fake fight in which one brother fake killed the other with a keyboard. I get it. They've got a lot of enthusiasm, and are trying to have fun and break put of their physical trappings. I like that they tried but their brand of humor just wasn't my thing.
But maybe the most confusing element for me was the lighting, purposefully aimed everywhere but on the brothers. Was it a Brooklyn hipster thing, that we couldn't or weren't supposed to see them? If so, then why all the effort to be performers? Why bother with all of the cheesy showmanship? It didn't make sense to me. Furthermore, it is always nice to see a musician do what they do, be it drumming, rocking a solo, or twisting little knobs. These were happy people up there - I'd have liked to have seen their smiles. Who doesn't like smiles? I think they worked against themselves in that regard.
Their brief set concluded with the catchy single Up All Night, as fun to hear live as it is at home. I'd rate it all as a mixed success, evinced by a clear divide between the hand clapping, head-bouncing, body-swaying listeners and the pockets of others who I spied checking Facebook on their phones. That familiar glowing icon is easy to spot in the dark.
The Pains Of Being Pure at Heart - I was really looking forward to hearing them live. For weeks I'd imagined how their lush, swooning sound would overwhelm me, how awash I'd be in emotions and memories of teenage crushes. I think The Pains... , not to be cynical, derive a certain amount of popularity from the nostalgia they evoke - you can hear generations of influences quite readily (too readily for some), from The Smiths to James to The Hidden Cameras, ad infinitum. It's all right there, but they do it well. They push the right buttons and strike the right heart strings. They make good music.
So was it jet lag, nerves, or too many bowls of beef noodles? Or are they always like this? Whatever the reason, despite opening with fun songs like This Love Is Fucking Right! and A Teenager in Love, something was lacking. Singer/guitarist Kip Berman just stood there. They all just kinda stood. There. I started thinking of snarky things like The Pains of Being At A Boring Show or The Pains of Being Purely Uninteresting Performers. Fortunately by their fourth song, Heart in Your Heartbreak, Kip snapped out of his stiff malaise and started to play demonstratively. And, as always, it got the fans going, too.
But one step forward, two steps back as The Tenure Itch proceeded and the sound quality deteriorated. First the vocals, then the whole band, were sounding flat, and I maneuvered to different spots to see if I was just standing in an acoustically impure place. Nope. Then I asked friends if they heard what I heard. Yep. Legacy always has great sound, so I figure it was an issue coming from the band itself.
Whereas I felt the music was dragging, not so the audience. I'd say most folks were digging it in their own way, especially the "homecoming" of Taiwanese-American keyboardist Peggy Wang. There was a lot of affection for her. People always like to see one of their own do well, and in Taiwan we're really good at letting you know we're proud of you.
Yet the problems persisted. With Young Adult Friction and My Terrible Friend, two really rocking numbers featuring thick bass, quick drums, nice guitars, charming keyboard riffs & tiny melodic moments that make my heart go "Ahh", the band themselves simply weren't playing up to the level of their music. At least on this night, it was evident that Kip Berman just isn't a powerful singer. Collectively, there was something missing. I've seen some photos of the band with a fifth member (they performed tonight as a quartet, and the band website officially lists only four members) - maybe he's the missing link.
By the last song I had to wonder again if it was just me, as they left the stage showered by cheers and looking triumphant. An encore promptly ensued, with Kip performing a solo rendition of Contender, and then - Then! At last! The band I'd hoped to see and hear in action! With Come Saturday and their namesake anthem, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, they finally delivered on their potential. This is how the whole show should have been. They were relaxed, having fun, and sounding tight & powerful.
Who knows? Maybe it was an off-night, or maybe I'm too demanding. The band appeared satisfied, the fans content, and a healthy line formed for the meet-and-greet that followed. All's well that ends well, yes? I only hope that next time I can hear them do justice to their beginning and middle, too. Their songs are too good not to be done right.