Friday night saw Asheville’s U.S. Cellular Center host indie pop breakouts, Foster the People. The LA-based trio used the misty mountains as a training camp of sorts to shed their new stage show in preparation for an upcoming summer tour, giving the 1000+ attendees a sneak peak at their immense (and often confusing) set pieces.
Before they began, however, the crowd was treated to a solo set from Elijah Wyman, founder and frontman of local pop outfit, The Decent Lovers (find the band’s new single here). When backed by his Lovers, Wyman and his songs have a vibrant, high-energy charm that begs for car trips and open windows. But here, with nothing to hide behind but his autoharp, the New England transplant showed how tender and immediate his music could be. In a huge room with huge lights and a huge audience, Wyman could have easily crumbled, but instead, gave each of us a sterling thirty minutes of sweet, smiling, and memorable pop. It was a great way to start evening.
But then, in one of the most severe illustrations of contrast ever seen in a concert setting, all 221 members (possibly exaggerated) of Foster the People’s touring regiment took the stage. Flanked by rotating video towers, immense LED light spreads and the strangest dance team I’ve ever seen outside of America’s Got Talent, the band cruised through an hour-long set of slick, cherry bubblegum tunes that were, for some reason, completely overrun by a Vegas-via-Hollywood production.
The whole thing was baffling.
Let me preface this by saying Foster the People’s music is very enjoyable. Much of the band’s buoyant, glossy summer pop would’ve sounded right at home cracking through a poolside radio at the YMCA twenty-five years ago. That’s not to say that they’re stuck looking backward – far from it – but the band does a great job capturing that bopping sweetness that fits so comfortably behind good childhood memories (with just a little bit of black poking through – more on that later).
That’s really a long and needlessly romantic way of saying that Foster the People’s music is super fun and danceable. More people should have been dancing.
Unfortunately, the Cirque du Soleil-cum-Tunderdome-inspired strip club dance routines and stage environments that accompanied the band did more to distract than entertain. Every time the bizarrely costumed dancers scampered out behind (or in a few cases, in front of) the band, the attention of the entire audience went directly to them. And, really, if they’d done anything at all, I supposed that would have been OK.
But they didn’t. They didn’t really do anything. They climbed the lighted video towers, stood at the top, and then moved around like weird birds. Several times. They looked like extras from a community theater-produced Star Wars musical. It was baffling.
Equally confusing was the band’s stage sound. Frontman Mark Foster – who, unrelated, looked a lot like Ducky from Pretty in Pink backed by an expanded complement of large, handsome, model-y men – seems to use his voice more like an instrument than a traditional feature vocal. He has a fairly unique voice, and the way it works in the music adds to the lush broadness of it, but that quality often leaves it buried under waves of synth-y keys and accessory instrumentation.
Add to that the fact that the mix sounded much more geared toward an outdoor performance than one held in a concrete-floored room (lots of slapping bass and drum echo, and a mountain of midrange wash that filled every nook and cranny of the venue), and you end up with a very messy presentation of what were, as mentioned above, really enjoyable songs.
All that leads me back to that little bit of gloom that pokes through each of Foster the People’s songs. Most notably heard in the band’s groundswell crossover hit from 2011, “Pumped Up Kicks”, there seems to be just a little sadness that permeates much of Foster’s catalog. Maybe it’s depth, or maybe it’s just moodiness, but it proved very intriguing in a live setting, and it may have provided some insight into their literally overwhelming stage show.
There’s a possibility that the subdued melancholy heard in a few of those songs is actually rooted in some tremendous insecurity, and that’s what drove the band to put together such a strange and (mostly) inappropriate production for this tour. That’s all conjecture, but the only other explanation is bad judgment. It was like covering a good meal in candy sprinkles – empty calories and colors swallowing up a main course that didn’t need anything else. Hopefully, on their next tour, they’ll skip the candy.