Midway through the Concretes’ May 8 concert at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, the reserved lead singer, Victoria Bergsman, laid the band’s cards out. “So, I have to say this,” she chirped in her thick Swedish drawl, grabbing the audience’s attention. “Everyone in the band loves New York.”
Scarcely breaking her stony stare, she quickly scanned the crowd to see if this stock motion of emotion had registered. Before anyone could respond, she pulled the punch line: “But, who doesn’t?”
Though hardly a riot, the crowd waited for a riotous follow-up, only to get none. The apparent banter became a well-disguised joke, a seeming non sequitur to pull the listener in closer. More important, Bergsman’s affected delivery and droll manner illustrated the band’s devotion to form and whimsy. From individual songs to the set’s pace, the band members faithfully reproduced songs mostly from their breakout self-titled release (2004) and their latest album, In Colour, released on Astralwerks in April, with deliberation and playfulness.
The (slightly) pared-down eight-piece opened with a pair of dense and grand numbers to clear the air for its new spacious sunshine pop. The stately “Fiction” and Hitsville-meets-Surferville “You Can’t Hurry Love” brought the show to an early peak in density and intensity as guitarist and vocalist Maria Eriksson’s yelps whipped the horn-keyboard-guitar drone into frenzy. The approach worked as a contrast to the deliriously doe-eyed trifecta of In Colour tunes that followed: the follow-the-bouncing-ball-on-Sesame-Street “On the Radio,” the Dylan-meets-flower-power “Sunbeams” and Southern pink lemonade “Change in the Weather.” Adorning the newer material minimally — a relaxed flute solo by Ludvig Rylander here or a statement of the obvious (“This song is about [pause] the weather”) by Bergsman there — the band evidenced its new ease with open hills and the sound of the heart beating as one.
However, be it bashing through the old or crooning through the new, the group’s roughhewn yet thoughtful charm wore thin after the first half of an already-short show (barely an hour, including an encore). With a few years of consistent touring and their songwriting skills in obvious bloom, the band members should have had a greater grasp of dynamics and control over their performance. Certainly, each musician moved with noticeably greater ease through the newer material, finding nuances in rhythm and texture that pushed the music out of the middle of the road. Unfortunately, the older songs sounded practically barbarian in contrast, such as when the drums pounded out the chorus of “Can’t Hurry Love” amidst a candy-cane swirl of horns and overdriven guitars. By the time the group bookended the evening with another free-for-all of horn squeals and guitar squalor, much of its careful planning appeared lost and inadvertent — an unwelcome revision of Bergsman’s highlight remark. For a group that works so hard on presentation — look at the album design alone — the members could have stood to polish their main craft more.
Opener New Buffalo, the one-woman-show of Sally Seltmann, preceded with a set of painfully precious pop. Recalling Astrud Gilberto on a sunny day, she sang with a set of pipes blessed with both fragility and power, but she hardly used it to full capacity. Appearing frail on stage and too timid to use her voice to balance — let alone complement — her presentation, Seltmann benefited from her intimate and quiet audience. To her credit, she seized the opportunity to demonstrate her whirlwind of ideas — one moment, singing over her sampler, the next minute plunking away on her keyboard. The scale of her ideas is obviously grand (perhaps only Björk could actually get away with singing over a canned big band), but I hope experience will focus her ideas, adapt her to the stage and allow her the freedom to embrace the live setting next time around.
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