Date: August 6, 2019
Venue: Bowery Ballroom (New York City)
Bands have various incentives to reunite after a prolonged hiatus. For the quintessential cynic, it is tempting to think that the members of a band only reunite because the brand power and legacy of the band far eclipses those of the solo members of the band. The second scenario is one in which newly written material fits the mold of the band sound as opposed to that of the band member that wrote the new material. Noteworthy examples of this scenario include the “Cast in Steel” album (2015) by a-ha and the “Magnetized” album (2013) by Johnny Hates Jazz. Here too, some might argue that there is a recognition of the new material being “hit worthy” only if released as a band versus a solo project. The third and far less common driver for a band reunion is one in which one or more members of the band’s creative nucleus has experienced a personal hardship which has driven him or her towards a burst of sonic creativity manifested in a collection of songs with immense hit potential. That creativity is better being vocalized by someone other than the songwriter. This undoubtedly appears to be the catalyst for the reunion of Keane – one of Britain’s most successful bands to have emerged in the noughties with timeless pop anthems such as “Somewhere only we know”, “Everybody’s changing”, and “Is it any wonder”. Lead singer Tom Chaplin was the voice to bring the tragedy of the band’s keyboard player and primary songwriter Tim Rice-Oxley’s failed marriage to life through music. In fact, in a recent interview at the festival of the Isle Of Wight, the band’s drummer Richard Hughes described the album as being “more fears than hopes” in an apparent reference to the band’s UK #1 debut album titled “Hopes and Fears”.
A re-acquaintance with fans in a live environment prior to the release of their sixth studio album “Cause and Effect” was inevitable. Despite not being a household name in the US (owing to a lack of promotion from the country’s key music gatekeepers), Keane was not going to miss the opportunity to connect with their loyal American fans with intimate concerts in both Los Angeles and New York City. I had the privilege of attending the New York City concert at the Bowery Ballroom.
In a recent interview at the UK’s celebrated Glastonbury Festival Tim Rice-Oxley indicated that while he is undoubtedly proud of the success and ubiquity of Keane’s pop gems from their earlier albums, he does not want the band to be considered a “heritage act”. To this end, the band attempted to strike a balance between the mix of songs from their first two albums (i.e. “Hopes and Fears” and “Under The Iron Sea”) and their later material (including three songs from their soon to be released “Cause and Effect” album) for their setlist.
Keane kicked off the show with the sing-along-friendly “Bend and Break” – their final single from their debut album “Hopes and Fears”. Through the course of the evening, they jumped back and forth with respect to their back-catalog rarely ever playing consecutive songs from the same album.
Lead singer Tom Chaplin performed with the gusto and confidence of a man that has conquered the demons of his past. His movements (which at times felt choreographed) on stage always felt like he was attempting to draw the audience into his little sonic orbit (which he did rather successfully). His vocal versatility was adequately showcased as he demonstrated the power of his lungs on songs such as “Silenced by the night”, his falsetto on songs such as “Bedshaped”, and the innocent and transcendental beauty of the voice of a boy in a man-band on songs such as “Crystal Ball” (Tom Chaplin has added a hint of vocal gymnastics to the lyric “Mirror Mirror on the wall”).
The on-stage chemistry between the band members was undeniable despite their six-year long hiatus. The greatest manifestation of this was on the song “Try Again” which only featured Tom Chaplin and Tim Rice-Oxley. It was a poignant moment in the evening as it undoubtedly took the two of them back to a time characterized by a fair bit of tension between them as they were recording their highly anticipated “Under The Iron Sea” (2006) album. The sense of humor among the members was evident and quite heartwarming as the band’s player Jesse Quinn joined the audience during the performance of “Try Again” (a song that predated his joining the band). Drummer Richard Hughes powered through what most would consider a rather uptempo night with the same youthful energy that characterized his early performances with the band (I only learned later in the evening after a brief interaction with him that he was still quite jet lagged so kudos to him for concealing that well on stage!).
Keane’s opting for an intimate venue for their first post-reunion concert in New York City met with mixed feelings among their American fanbase. It was evident that the concert demand far outstripped the supply with the Bowery Ballroom’s capacity being a little over 500. This is staggeringly small for a band that plays to large audiences at festivals and arenas across the world. On the positive side, it also meant that the audience consisted of ardent fans with a deep knowledge of the band’s back-catalog. This paved the way for audience participation on songs besides “Somewhere only we know”. In fact, the audience brimmed with an overabundance of vocal enthusiasm on less celebrated songs (in the American musical mainstream) such as “We might as well be strangers” as Tom Chaplin held his microphone out towards them. The intimate venue and its associated audience also empowered the band with the freedom to eschew clichés such as ending the concert with their most popular hit single (which in the US is the timeless classic “Somewhere only we know”). They explored this freedom further by performing a new song titled “Put the radio on” (featured on the new album “Cause and Effect”) as their first post-encore track and ending the concert with the beautiful “Sovereign Light Café” from their “Strangeland” album. That being said, some might argue that despite these bold moves, the band played it rather safe. The sonic template that most fans (ardent and casual) associate with Keane is defined by the “Hopes and Fears”, “Under The Iron Sea”, and “Strangeland” albums. The “Perfect Symmetry” album and “Night Train” EP were considered more experimental endeavors by the band and not quintessential ingredients of their legacy. Only one song was featured from each of these. While this approach to the setlist might have been appropriate for a larger audience, the Bowery Ballroom was the venue in which Keane could have broken the rules further and included a few more gems from these albums. This break from convention would have undoubtedly been well received by the audience of die-hard Keane fans.
There were some defining moments in the evening that make Keane unique and set them apart from the rest of their contemporaries. First, they acknowledged their crew and pointed out just how much effort they take to move sound gear from one location to the next. The unsung heroes behind the concert experience rarely ever receive public acknowledgment. Second, Tom Chaplin took a few moments to characterize the band’s American fanbase as a “family”. There appears to be a recognition that the fans in the audience are discerning and far less susceptible to the potent opinion-shaping power of the American music industry’s key gatekeepers. Furthermore, the American fanbase’s love for the band is unconditional – one of the defining tenets of a familial relationship. Last, but not least, the band took time to meet their fans outside the venue despite a long day and jet lag. There was not even a hint of impatience as they greeted each of the fans and indulged them in conversation. This is a stark contrast to the common tradition of frightfully expensive “VIP Meet and Greet” packages tied to concerts – wherein the “meet and greet” is only a momentary photo opportunity. While I do not seek to pass judgment on artists and bands that sell these concert packages, it is virtually impossible to ignore the fact that Keane chooses to have a more emotional relationship with their fans as opposed to a transactional one. The humility that underscores the personalities of the band members is not one typically associated with an act that has the musical pedigree that Keane does.
The performance at the Bowery Ballroom is not of a band looking back and resting on their musical laurels. This is a band looking to the future and sowing the seeds of the next glorious chapter of their story. To be a part of this audience was an incredible privilege. Their upcoming album “Cause and Effect” cannot arrive soon enough.
STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
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