By Hollister Dixon
The Twilight Sad are a band I’ve loved since I first saw the cover of their debut, Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters. That particular year, I would download just about anything and everything I could, because I wanted to digest as much as possible, and The Twilight Sad are a band that hit the scene just in time for 16-year-old me to get lost in everything. They’re a band that have never really put their influences on display, as much as they’ve playfully torn those influences apart, making the papier-mache creation almost totally unrecognizable by the end of things. It’s a band with incredibly obtuse song titles like “And She Would Darken the Memory” and “That Summer, at Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy” (a cunning Stand By Me reference). The artwork featured Norman Rockwell-esque portraits of family dissonance, with children in unsettling cloth masks. Their frontman, James Graham, sings in a glorious Scottish accent, the kind only Aidan Moffat dares to sing in. And – oh yeah – they’re really, really fucking loud.
Despite my love of the band, every opportunity to see them slid through my fingers. Their current tour – in support of fellow Scotsmen, We Were Promised Jetpacks – is the band’s fifteenth US tour since Fourteen Autumns was released in 2007, which makes me even more angry that it has taken me so long to finally see them. Luckily, thanks to the joys of the job, and local record store giants Music Millennium, I got to make up for lost time by seeing them twice in one day.
Music Millennium – In-Store Performance
When a band like Twilight Sad does an in-store performance, it’s hard to imagine what it will look like. It’s hard to picture the five-piece turning up with amp stacks and blowing out eardrums from the top floor of Music Millennium, but you never truly know. Luckily, the band is well-suited for a stripped-down sound, as James Graham and guitarist/all-around nice dude Andy MacFarlane played through a beautiful array of songs. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, in breaking from the typical “play a few cuts from the new record” format of the in-store performance, the band had decided to touch on each of their four albums, including Fourteen Autumns opener “Cold Days from the Birdhouse” (spoiler alert: I wept), as well as cuts from No One Can Ever Know (“Alphabet”) and Forget the Night Ahead (“I Became a Prostitute” [“I didn’t actually become a prostitute, it’s a metaphor,” Graham assured the crowd when announcing the name of the song]), and the title track from the Wrong Car EP.
The remarkable thing was how the mic-and-acoustic-guitar setup helped to highlight Graham’s strengths as a songwriter. The band’s records are heavy enough to lose yourself in completely, to the point where lines like “You are the bearer of a womb without love” slide by unprocessed, but in this environment, every painful facet comes into sharpest focus. Nobody Wants to Be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave lead single “Last January”, though it sounds like it could be an exceptional Horrors track on record, here becomes a pained story of mutual disdain that wouldn’t be out of place on a Swell Season record. And yes, that is most definitely a compliment. Though the whole thing might not exactly be the portrait of the Twilight Sad I fell in love with, it was a wonderful way to get a taste of what I was in for that night.
You would be forgiven if you saw both of these performances, and couldn’t make the picture fit in your mind. If I didn’t know better, I would assume the band I saw at the Wonder Ballroom had absolutely no connection to the one I’d seen earlier in the day. In the evening, James Graham’s soft-spoken exterior flies out the window and is replaced by a man who seems possessed; he stalked the stage, howling into the mic, with his eyes nearly rolling back into his head. And, somehow, the rest of the band managed to match his intensity every step of the way, far enough that, when the band were done, Andy MacFarlane’s monitor was actively producing smoke. Have you ever seen a musician play hard enough to catch fire to the equipment? Because I haven’t, and let me tell you: it’s fucking impressive.
Here, the band blasted through a number of wonderful cuts from their new record, as well as a mix of older material as good as the mix from before (“That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy” and “And She Would Darken the Memory” were incorporated in, as well as No One Can Ever Know gem “Don’t Move”), and though the set wasn’t quite enough to make up for lost time, it was at least a step in the right direction. All I know now is, I’m never going to miss an opportunity to see them perform.
One final story: I went to the Wonder Ballroom performance with my good friend Michael, who also attended that evening’s Pissed Jeans performance at the Doug Fir. After the show was over, he discovered that two of the members of the band had double booked themselves in the exact same way, and had hopped in a cab over to the Doug Fir right after they were done packing up their van. Apparently, they had done the exact same thing the night before in Seattle, and are making a point of catching them every night they end up in the same city. It was a strangely surreal experience, but a wonderful end to a great day.