Blitzen Trapper with Phoebe Bridgers
November 20, 2015 @ The Biltmore Cabaret
By Chloe Sjuberg
Coming to the Biltmore for the third autumn in as many years to see Blitzen Trapper feels a bit like coming home. A Cascadia flag is draped over one corner of the empty stage, I’m leaning alone against a table with a can of Bomber ESB in my hand, and I’m feeling a familiar, giddy anticipation.
Given how unenthused I was about the album they’re touring, All Across This Land, it’s funny how emotional I’m getting. But Blitzen Trapper has seen me through a lot. I first heard them through clunky HMV headphones when Furr came out back in high school. I listened to Destroyer of the Void, American Goldwing and VII while walking back and forth through neighbourhoods that never felt like home. Blitzen Trapper is learning to weasel my short ass through crowds to the front row out of a passion for the music and a desperate need to see the people who made me feel this way. And they were MY band. I have the affection I’ll always have for sparkly things I discovered all on my own. And I know from previous experience that they’re great performers, so I expected a good show in any case.
But first, wearing a long red scarf that speaks of lonely winter, the opener Phoebe Bridgers takes the stage softly under the low lights. I steal my way to the front of the floor, one of the only people who does, but I feel I really don’t want to miss this.
I’m contemplative, nostalgic, and still concert-high from the Peak Performance Project finale the night before, so maybe it’s no wonder, but I’m in tears before Bridgers has finished her first line.
Her calm strums are simple, rich and warm amber like the wood of her guitar. Her low, sad lyrics are introspective and deeply, instantly relatable. As someone who deals with depression, “you’re the feeling I get when I’m feeling fine” is such a beautiful description of love.
Her rich folk guitar sound, strong clear voice and the tone of her lyrics remind me fiercely of Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards – she knows how to muster a cold strength in the face of loneliness and longing, but she’s also unafraid of showing that she’s sad and vulnerable.
Marshall Vore is a calm presence on the drums behind her, coming in partway through songs and giving them an extra surge of emotion. He also sings harmony with Phoebe in places, taking their sound in the direction of The Civil Wars.
Quick fun facts: this is Phoebe and Marshall’s first time out of the US, so naturally she skewered our weird plastic money; she is also in a punk band called Sloppy Jane; and her first record, Killer, exclusively on 7” vinyl, was produced by Ryan Adams.
Ask Me To, Wasted, Killer and Wilt (originally by Sloppy Jane) were my favourite songs of her set. She also covered The House That Heaven Built by Vancouver’s Japandroids, another guitar/drum duo.
The crowd got more and more on board with every song, and I was thoroughly sold and wrung out by the end of her set, beaming with the thrill of a new discovery.
Rock and Roll (Was Made For You)
Love Grow Cold
Not Your Lover
Let the Cards Fall
Ever Loved Once
Nights Were Made For Love
Come Together (The Beatles cover)
Love the Way You Walk Away
Even If You Don’t
Black River Killer
All Across This Land
If I Needed You (Townes Van Zandt cover)
As expected, Blitzen Trapper’s performance was strong throughout, especially when they exploded into wild but cohesive surges of sound. The band plays so well together yet each member’s unique presence and talent comes through. Frontman Eric Earley busts out huge, infectious smiles that make it clear he’s absolutely loving what he’s doing, and all five of them seem genuine, friendly and like they’re having a ton of fun. Their alt-country-rock sound is blisteringly intense, from Marty Marquis’s pounding keys on Cadillac Road to Brian Adrian Koch’s heart-palpitating drums on Rock and Roll (Was Made For You).
The crowd was madly enthusastic, singing along to even more songs than at previous shows, but frankly, for me, the show was nothing new. Minus the slurred and rhythmically looser voice Earley brings to his live performance, they don’t deviate much from the sound of their studio recordings. Even hearing the tracks from the latest album live for the first time wasn’t too exciting – while it was fun to hear the tracks I did enjoy, it didn’t feel as if they brought any new insights in terms of style or energy.
Many of the songs dissolved into jams that I felt were drawn out too long, and the tone didn’t change much throughout the night, even though they interspersed big, rollicking, shiny romps like Fletcher and All Across This Land with the moody chill of Thirsty Man or Black River Killer. I was longing for some more stripped-down fare, so the slow and sad Not Your Lover, from their breakout album Furr, was the standout of the show for me.
On the introspective, woodsy Furr, their first major hit and a longtime crowd favourite, all five members were singing along and smiling. It was endearing to see that it felt like a favourite old friend rather than simply fan service they’ve trotted out a million times.
A cover of The Beatles’ Come Together felt like a bit of an unoriginal and self-indulgent choice, but the big explosive group sound does suit the chorus perfectly, and the textured twang of Earley’s voice seems made for the infamously bizarre lyrics.
For the encore (before an all-out stomp-dance-fest of Heart Attack to end the night), Earley performed the spare, soft If I Needed You by his beloved Townes Van Zandt, with just his guitar and Marquis and Koch singing harmony.
I had a conversation with a couple of fellow Blitzen concert regulars, in which we questioned why, with their growing popularity, the band weren’t playing larger venues like the Vogue or the Commodore – but agreed, of course, that we couldn’t complain about getting to see them in the lower-key and more intimate Biltmore. While in principle I’m immensely grateful not to have to brave the Granville strip and pay higher ticket prices to boot, this show did get me thinking that Blitzen Trapper has actually outgrown the Biltmore. The venue’s acoustics leave a lot to be desired, and the band’s sound seemed to overpower the space, and in turn, the audience singing along sometimes overpowered the band.
In sum, I think everyone should see a Blitzen Trapper concert once. Man, are they into it. They’ll play some of the songs you love for the same reasons you love them, and you’re guaranteed huge, fun energy. And who knows, maybe you’ll discover a new favourite artist in the opening act!