LIVE: Frightened Rabbit, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR

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By Hollister Dixon

“What the hell is in the water in Scotland?”

That was Frightened Rabbit fangirl Kelly Dixon, in a recent conversation about the newest Frightened Rabbit album, Painting of a Panic Attack. That isn’t exactly an unfair question, and it’s something I’ve wondered for quite some time now. Should we be putting Zoloft in the drinking water of Glasgow? Between Arab Strap, Mogwai (their sorrow transcends the need for actual lyrics almost always), The Twilight Sad, Belle & Sebastian (though they maintain a poppy veneer), and Frightened Rabbit, I have to wonder what the hell is making every Scottish musician so glum.

Painting of a Panic Attack, the fifth full-length by Frightened Rabbit, is exactly what you’d come to expect from the band. While that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Scott Hutchinson’s band is a beautiful example of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Over the years, his band has pushed itself to be more layered and dynamic, but two things remain the same: Hutchinson’s criminally sorrowful lyrics, and the beautiful waves of danceable noise that go with them. This, as well, is something all the aforementioned Scots have in common: they manage to bury their pain beneath beautiful sounds, which are often enough to distract you from that pain. It’s fitting, then, that the very first time I saw the band perform (after a few years of fandom, mind you), it was on a suddenly rainy afternoon at Edgefield Amphitheater, opening for their American counterparts The National. Though that was a lovely performance, their music has an air of intimacy that got lost in the September air, so that performance left me wanting a lot more. It took another three years to get what I wanted, and it was worth that wait.

But first, let’s talk about Caveman, the band’s six-piece Brooklynite openers for this tour. As far as openers go, Caveman are among the best I’ve seen in quite some time. Their on the cusp of releasing their 3rd LP, Otero War, and they’ve got the sonic chops of a band that knows what it means to be an opener for another band. This could seem like an insult or a backhanded compliment, but think about it: how many opening acts have you seen that you couldn’t remember the name of a week later, that felt like they were just helping the band have more time to smoke outside the stage door or scroll through Twitter? Caveman have the strength of a band that may have gotten comfortable being perennial openers, and though their sound is by no means innovative, they seem to know how to get a crowd dancing.

Unfortunately, they lose me with their lyrics; there’s no real other way to say it: they’re just not great. Sure, the band has a lot going for them sonically, but they fall flat with puerile wordsmanship. Just about every song played suffered the same fate of overly simplistic lyrics, with each song featuring a repeated phrase (“Only to be over my head” in “Over My Head”, “I don’t want to leave home” in “In The City”, “I can’t even say the words I’ve heard, easy for you” in “Shut You Down” – you get the picture). This is a band with a lot going for it – great sound, tight performing, great stage presence – but lyrics like these are extremely difficult to ignore. I’ll happily see this band again, but I truly hope they up their lyrics game between now and then.

The first thing I notice about Frightened Rabbit – and this is true of the aforementioned sadsacks of the Twilight Sad as well – is that they manage to counteract their sorrowful lyrics with genuinely affectionate and playful stage presence. Frightened Rabbit are much more than the sadness they create, but it’s hard to ignore: “I want to die like a rich boy diving in a hydrocodone dream / I want to die like a rich boy diving in a lake that bears my name,” Scott Hutchinson sings on Painting track “Die Like a Rich Boy. Elsewhere, on “My Backwards Walk” from their sophomore breakout The Midnight Organ Fight, he sings, “I’m working on erasing you / Just don’t have the proper tools / I get hammered, forget that you exist / There’s no way I’m forgetting this.” Onstage, though, Hutchinson greets a sold-out Wonder Ballroom by thanking them for helping them sell out for the first time in Portland: “Where the fuck were all of you all the other times?!” He jokes with a man shouting at him in a Scottish accent: “This bloke thinks he can get my attention with his Scottish accent, and it’s not going to work, because… fuck, it worked! You got me!” He jokes about using the divide between the all-ages crowd to “pull a Bruce Springsteen,” and jokes about pulling his mom onstage to dance with him, “Though she’s nowhere near here, she might not make it.” When a man shouted out “I’ll be your mom!” he responds by asking if he’ll also help him out financially if “this whole band thing doesn’t work out.” Hutchinson is a magnetic frontman through and through, and in the end it’s less a counterpoint to their music, and more another piece of the bigger picture. Absent is banter from the rest of the band, of course; not every band can be packed with chatty people, though, so this is a very minor trifle.

The first thing I notice about their stage setup is that they’ve opted to use their own lighting setup, rather than using the stage lights. Aside from looking great, it means that throughout the show the band was surrounded on all sides by a layer of darkness, constantly threatening to creep in from the margins of the stage. They play this to beautiful effect, most noticeably on set opener “Get Out,” where the band performed with nothing but a couple blue lights flashing in the darkness. It’s the perfect metaphor for the band: the inky blackness of the real world constantly forcing itself into the loud, danceable music they make, with that music doing its best to keep that darkness at bay.

Five albums and 13 years in, you couldn’t ask for a tighter live act than Frightened Rabbit. They’ve learned a lot through touring and performing on a constant basis, and most recently working with producer/National bassist Aaron Dessner. The set bounces from the old (“Old Old Fashioned”, “Nothing Like You”) to the brand new (“Lump Street”, “Woke Up Hurting”), but each song is carefully placed and roars with a beautiful urgency. The crowd, clearly packed with hopeless acolytes, hung on every last word. After all these years, it’s truly wonderful to see this band get their due.

At the beginning of the encore, Hutchinson took to the stage with just an acoustic guitar, bathed in purple light, and started “Die Like a Rich Boy” with an extra falsetto verse: “I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain / I only wanted to one time to see you laughing / I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain.” It was a touching tribute to the passing of Prince, news that was barely 12 years old, but it went a little deeper than that. Not only did it feel a lot like a verse that could be in a Frightened Rabbit song, but it served as a way to permanently break down the picture of the band I couldn’t shake before then: one of depressive Scots making beautiful noise to ease the pain. What I got instead was an even better, more complete picture – one of a group of beautiful Scots, indebted to the joys of pop music and live music, who make beautiful noise because it’s what they were truly meant to do.

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