photo by Matt Glassett
A few years ago, Arcade Fire provided me with ultimately my greatest concert experience. But the one unsettling thing about their performance was the seeming lack of happiness and joy. Despite the uplifting nature of the band's songs, it seemed tough for Win Butler to put on a smile. So it's pretty great to see a band with songs almost as epic and almost as uplifting as Arcade Fire's with a lead singer who smiles. A lot.
That's what makes Steel Train's live show so phenomenal: they have a ridiculous amount of fun when they play, and the audience can't help but to have fun with them. From lead singer Jack Antonoff using the set-list to blow his nose to the entire group singing together their "Road Song" as a family, the band knows how to have a good time. And oh yeah, their music is incredible.
Steel Train has toured with The Format and The Hush Sound, and for good reason: they make similar soaring, brilliant pop-rock tracks, each seeming to require some kind of sing along "la la," "oh oh," or "ooo." If you've listened to their most recent full-length Trampoline, you know what I'm talking about. From quick, catchy sing-alongs ("I Feel Weird") to sweeping, U2-inspired anthems ("Alone on the Sea") to subdued, quieter cuts ("Dakota," "Kill Monsters In The Rain"), Steel Train's arsenal is absolutely loaded, and in concert they truly let it all go, playing nearly everything off of Trampoline, some old stuff, and a few killer bonuses: covers were abound, with "Mamma Mia," "The Weight," and most notably, "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant" (in the middle of perhaps their most epic track, "Day In The Life" rip-off "A Magazine").
On top of the covers, new songs were premiered. The band wasn't able to play their scheduled set at NJ summer festival All Points West in '09 (Happy New Year, by the way!), and Antonoff explained that he was most upset about not being able to play their new song, "Song Burning In Hell." After telling his fellow band-mates that the "pressure was on," Steel Train proceeded to blow my mind, absolutely killing the new tune which was complete with: "whoas," "ooos," and a climactic "la la la" and "come on come on" split between the two halves of the audience that would make Ben Folds proud. Not to mention the song's drum breakdown, in which every member of the band found themselves jamming on some form of percussion. An absolute stunner; but then again, every song is a stunner at a Steel Train concert.
If you couldn't tell from all my references to "epic pop-rock," Steel Train's sound is heavily derivative of The Format's. So it's no surprise that Antonoff and Nate Ruess (formerly The Format's lead singer) are buds. And if you've been paying attention, it shouldn't shock you that Antonoff is a part of Ruess' incredible new band Fun., PMA fave.
Special guests were promised at both nights of Steel Train's two-night New Jersey stint (their homecoming set at Maxwell's, an incredible venue) and I couldn't help but to hope for an appearance from musical mastermind Ruess. Unfortunately, Antonoff let me know after the Tuesday show that Nate would be their the following night. But I guess it was for the better. I was there for Steel Train, and they gave me about as good of a concert as I've ever seen.
It should be mentioned that opener Chris Ayer was excellent, a Jason Mraz, Kris Allen-type with an acoustic guitar, a smooth voice, and some clever, culturally relevant lyrics.