by Dan Williams
It was 36 degrees and the Philadelphia region experienced its first snow storm of the season. Fans began staking out spots in front of Union Transfer at 2:30 for an 8:00 PM show. Kyla, David & Gabrielle took the train in from Camden and claimed the coveted first spots in line, guaranteeing front row. They were there for Jack Antonoff (fun.) and his new band Bleachers, but were very excited to experience for the first time the “Nu-Hula” sound of local son Kenny Vasoli (Starting Line, Person L) of Vacationer. Over 1,000 tickets had been sold, remarkably close to capacity for an early show on a stormy night.
The lights dimmed right at 8:00 and out strolled Abington Township native Vasoli to a warm hometown cheer and the lush electronic tropical rhythms of danceable show opener “Shining”. Vacationer grabbed the crowd from the start led by the dynamic drum work of Ryan Zimmaro, laying down the foundation with attention-getting toms and bass. Layering over the beat were Greg Altman on guitar and Matthew Young on island flavored vibraphone.
The sunshine sound delivered in Vacationers’ ten song set was dominated by the sophomore release of new album Relief. Only three songs from first album Gone made the short list for this show. The crowd fell in love with the laid back, chill vibe of Vacationer as Vasoli and his bass danced and bounced along the front of the stage. At one point he gave a shout out to his local fans and then asked the crowd if they had heard of Vacationer. He was greeted with a roof-raising cheer.
Vacationer was a departure for long time followers of Kenny Vasoli’s music. He began his career with The Starting Line, a Post-Punk group signed by Geffen Records. Other fans mentioned his Metal influenced band Person L. One concert-goer commented that the Vacationer sound reminded him of LCD Soundsystem … without the techno. Interestingly, it was while attending the 2010 Bonnaroo and watching LCD Soundsystem perform where Vasoli and friend Matt Watts launched the idea for Vacationer’s sound. Through in-studio experimentation, the duo created the fresh new sound dubbed Nu-Hula.
Vacationer kept the crowd dancing with renditions of “In The Grass” and “Trip”, then slowed things down with the swaying romantic feel of “Stay”. Those were followed by “Paradise Waiting” with its Motown influenced opening piano riff and overall Jack Johnson feel. Percussion heavy “Fresh” led into the feel good pop hook of “The Wild Life”.
“Glimpse” with its slow, languid mantra-like lyrics quieted the crowd into a smiling swaying mass. This prepared the way for the two closers from their first album: “Everybody Knows” and Vasoli’s popular homage to his puppy, “Good As New”. Just before the final song, Vasoli asked how many folks were there to hear Jack Antonoff and Bleachers. After a window rattling cheer, he said that he and Jack had played a lot of very small clubs together as they were coming up and that he was thrilled to see Jack finally getting his due.
… And boy is he ever getting his due!
By this point, Union Transfer was near capacity with eager fans filling the main floor and the balconies. This despite that Bleachers had just played the TLA a few days before. A large percentage of the crowd acknowledged that they had attended both shows.
Sporting a unique hipster combination of long sleeve print shirt over short bike shorts, work boots and capped off with a white guitar with long white coiled lead, Jack Antonoff began singing the melodic opening phrases of album opener anthem “Wild Heart”. Accompanied by electronic and acoustic instruments, the vocals gave way to the heavy and rich synchronized sound of duel drum kits that immediately gripped the crowd and held them spellbound for the rest of the evening.
The evening continued to build with much conversation between the stage and crowd. Not one to simply yell “How ya doin’ Philly?” before continuing to play, references were made to the Eagles, Philly audiences and the TLA show earlier in the week. At one point fans screamed the Eagles cheer which was met with funny, droll New Jersey swagger responses from the microphone. The audience sang most songs word for word and hung on his every word. They were captured by the unique personality of the headliner.
“Shadow” with its tight shredded guitar solo was followed by the romantic “Wake Me” with the phrase “I can’t believe I captured your heart” and charming 60’s beach guitar throwback. “Reckless Love” followed with its catchy sing along hook.
“Take Me Away” was a tour de force for Bleachers complete with jungle sounds and electronic female voices. At this point, the first cover was introduced – a near acoustic version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” which brought huge cheers, dancing and a chorus of a thousand or more singing every word.
“Rollercoaster” with its classic rock meets 80’s pop energy was followed by an extended version of “You’re Still A Mystery” and its hot saxophone licks and easy Springsteen comparison. I stood in the balcony with a number of fans and throughout the show, the Springsteen comparisons flew. While Anotonoff purposely rocks a Rick Moranis meets Big Bang Theory nerdy hipster look, his New Jersey swagger and connection with the audience is unmistakably Boss-like. Add an obvious nod to the great Clarence Clemons and it is hard to miss that the torch is being grabbed by a new generation.
After an acoustic version of “Bullet” from his Steel Train days, there was one final thank you to his local fans. Bleachers rocked two Hall & Oates classics: “Maneater” and “Rich Girl” were received with cheers only a home crowd can deliver.
They saved their big hit “Wild Heart” to close. The fans left feeling completely satisfied with the belief that they are catching a rising star. That was further punctuated on Thanksgiving. Airing during the Philadelphia Eagles / Dallas Cowboys game was a high energy Chase Apple Pay commercial starring Jack Antonoff. Now is a good time to grab on to Bleachers.
It may have been stormy outside, but Vacationer and Bleachers delivered warm tasty treats for those who braved the elements.