Monday, September 20, 2010

Three Dudes at a Paramore Concert

Admit it: however rational, respectable, and artistic the rest of your musical taste is, you have that one musical guilty pleasure hanging out on your iPod.  Disco?  Kylie Minogue?  50 Cent?  I won't judge--I can't--because I too have a musical guilty pleasure.  It's pop-punk, in all its shapes and sizes, but in particular the angsty, high-school, half-assed-rebellious glory that is Paramore.

And I'll be the first to admit it: Paramore's music is not really that special.  Their biggest hit, "Misery Business," is about as lyrically creative as an emo fifteen-year-old's Xanga account circa 2003.  Their electrically driven brand of pop-punk hasn't been original since Green Day gave us Dookie in 1994 (back when they were still good and hadn't started whining about politics).  And they only know how to write a handful of musical tempos and dynamics: loud and fast, loud and sort of fast, quieter and really slow.

Paramore transcends that heap of mediocrity to become just plain good in a way that's difficult to express or even make sense of.  They're credible musicians, if not necessarily virtuosos.  Their songs are infectiously catchy in a way that makes you want to listen to them over and over again, even though you know you're not going to get anything more out of them the second (or seventh... consecutive) time.  And Hayley Williams, the group's feisty and fire-haired girl singer is legitimately talented.

In fact, it's Hayley (yes, apparently she and I are on a first-name basis) that gives the band any distinction at all.  Without her, they'd be a competent but forgettable addition to the middle-2000s slate of pop-punk bands and entirely overshadowed by the likes of Fall Out Boy, Motion City Soundtrack, Sum 41... and just about everyone else who was making music last decade.  It's no secret that I like rock music with girl singers--in fact, I have a Pandora station called Awesome Girl Singer Stuff that prominently features Paramore (also Eisley, Vedera, Rilo Kiley, and a handful of Scottish female singer/songwriters).  It's a nice aesthetic, and it gives me an instant celebrity crush, so what's not to like?

And it was mainly the promise of seeing what sort of antics that Hayley would come up with live that got me excited about going to see Paramore in concert.  One day in May, I stumbled upon a television commercial advertising their coming tour (try finding a television commercial proclaiming the Decemberists coming to town) and I knew I'd be going to that show.  I half-jokingly floated the idea to a few friends... and four months later, there we were in downtown San Jose, three twentysomething dudes going to see Paramore in concert.  Better yet, although I was genuinely excited about seeing the band, I could still play it off as hipster irony if anyone really pressed me on it.

Nothing about the concert disappointed.  From before we even parked, we knew that our anticipation of the demographic was hilariously accurate: teenagers abounded, with about one in three concertgoers looking to be a seventeen-year-old girl or her barely-fighting-the-scowl boyfriend (who was probably secretly into the music anyway).  In true signs of the times, the massive screen above the stage showed closeups of the band during the show (which is incredibly helpful in such a massive venue as the HP Pavilion), and during the set changes, it was filled with "<3"-laden texts from high schoolers.  (Our plan, fueled by a handful of beers, to start trolling the text board with messages touting the superiority of Berkeley to their high school, never quite came to pass.)  And once Paramore actually started playing, an alarmingly piercing shriek resounded from the audience, many members of which knew every single word of everything Paramore played.

The first surprise at the concert, a pleasant one, was the sheer amount of music we got to experience.  The tickets said 6:30, but we weren't sure if that was the door time or the show time, so we arrived fashionably late at 7:30... only to find ourselves in the middle of the second of three opening bands.  Usually, "second of three opening bands" spells certain obscure doom, but in Paramore's case, they'd managed to bring along New Found Glory, a band that everyone has at least heard of.  The third opener, in a slight breach of concert protocol was the lesser-known Tegan and Sara.

I've heard about three songs each by both New Found Glory and Tegan and Sara, and I find concerts a miserable venue to learn new music, but both bands put on the sort of performance that if I were a fan, I would have enjoyed immensely.  (The best thing that Tegan and Sara did was be dryly hilarious in a way that the teenage audience didn't necessarily pick up on.  The best example was when they proclaimed that Paramore would "rock the shit out of this place," an amusingly inappropriate sentiment to deliver to a bunch of fifteen-year-olds.)

Paramore themselves came on at roughly 10:00 and played at least a solid hour of music.  Minus set changes, that meant I got three and a half hours of music, and I would have gotten another hour or so if I'd bothered to show up on time.  Unsurprisingly, the set list was weighted toward more recent material--they played nearly all of their 2009 album Brand New Eyes, a handful of the better-known tracks from 2007's Riot, and a song or two from their freshman All We Know is Falling, released in 2005.  I have a new-found appreciation for both "Emergency" and "Pressure" (from Falling)--it's amazing what six years of touring and maturation do for your sound.  The album cuts of both songs almost sounded like lo-fi garage rock in comparison to their live performances.  Unfortunately, I couldn't gain the same respect for tracks like "Misguided Ghosts" and "Playing God" (from Brand New Eyes), which are still boring even live in concert... and "The Only Exception" (also from Eyes) is still boring and infuriatingly angsty.

Paramore played a few acoustic versions of some of their songs, which I could take or leave--though I understand the necessity for slowing the tempo and lowering the volume in the middle of a high-intensity show.  They only played one cover, and it was Hayley singing a country song.  Normally, I like covers, especially if they're of super-obscure songs that I happen to know.  Not being the world's biggest country fan, I couldn't tell you if the one Hayley sang is well-known or not--but it turns out she's a pretty darn good country vocalist.  I said so to one of the guys I was with during the show, and he admitted that "she's a pretty darn good vocalist in general."

Yet another part of the concert that didn't disappoint was the appearance of several of the top concert don'ts.  Six-foot-three guy, totem pole couple, and spilling your beer all happened.  Elbowing your way to the front and "you mind if I squeeze in here?" probably did too, but in our advanced age, it wasn't like we were rocking out on the floor next to all the really enthusiastic fans.  The good thing about going to a concert populated with a bunch of only-mildly-rebellious high schoolers?  No weed cloud or getting in fights.  It seems there are worse people to sit down and listen to some generic pop-punk with.

One striking part of the show for me was  its unabashed corporatism.  It wasn't a Paramore tour, even, it was the "Honda Civic Tour with Paramore and Tegan and Sara".  It was certainly the first concert I've been to that was headlined by a car.  During set changes, we had to watch commercials for the Honda Civic--I'm not even making this up--prompting one of my friends to lament that we were "paying to watch a commercial."  "Yeah, we are," I responded.  "I'd love to see them try to get away with this in the East Bay."

For a lot of reasons, the unabashed corporatism being one, and the immense scale of the venue and the performers being another, this was not a concert that could have happened in the East Bay.  On the other hand, it was one that I was perfectly happy having to travel to the South Bay to be able to go to.  It might not be bleeding-edge indie cool to be a fan of Paramore... but it's also impossible to deny that they put on a fine show.

Currently listening: "Viola", This is Ivy League

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