Live Review, 2/25/12: Archers of Loaf Struggle to Find Momentum at Great American

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Archers of Loaf
Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012
Great American Music Hall

Better than:
Never seeing Archers of Loaf at all.

For Archers of Loaf fans who have loved the North Carolina quartet since 1993's stunning Icky Mettle album, tonight is a very big deal indeed. The group broke up in 1998 and reformed out of the blue last year, and for some of us, tonight is the first opportunity we've had to see a band we've loved for nearly two decades. As such, expectations are high -- but Archers of Loaf would do a lot to screw this up. 

A key problem tonight is that the band -- with the exception of super-intense bassist Matt Gentling -- don't seem to be nearly as enthusiastic about hearing Archers of Loaf as the crowd is. The beginning of the set lacks momentum, with long spaces between songs, little by way of banter to fill the gaps, and a lackluster, going-through-the-motions approach to playing. It feels more like stumbling across this group in a practice space than watching a well-planned, appropriately rehearsed show.

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Which gets us to the setlist. It's difficult to know what Archers of Loaf's members were thinking when they came up with this thing. The slow bleakness of "Floating Friends" is the second song in the set, when all anyone wants is to feel stoked for a minute. And the closest thing Archers had to a big hit, "Web in Front," is thrown out as the fifth song in, performed too slowly, and lacking in real punch.

It takes the band almost half the set to find a steady pace, but even during the encore, rather than ending on a glorious high with probably the best song of the night -- the fired-up explosion of "Audiowhore" -- the group closes instead with the slow-burning "All Hail the Black Market." An undoubtedly gorgeous song, yes, but, even as it builds to the final beautiful crescendo, you have to wonder why the band want to leave on such a down note when three minutes ago, we were all having the time of our lives.
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Ultimately, Archers of Loaf create some wondrous moments tonight. Pre-encore set-closer "Nostalgia" is a juggernaut; the all-encompassing darkness of "Distance Comes in Droves" is thoroughly engaging; the room-wide singalong that starts during "Greatest of All Time" is a joy to behold; and "Lowest Part Is Free" causes such chaos in the crowd, it feels like a minor earthquake is in effect.

But not only is the set organized in such a way that makes it hard to be fully and consistently absorbed in this experience, the truth is that Archers of Loaf doesn't have the same chaos or spirit that it used to. Having this evening of nostalgia is nice, but it doesn't really ever fully take us back to the old experience, because -- for the most part, at least -- the songs simply don't have the same energy or kick tonight that we've grown used to on record. This audience of devotees makes the best of it, but it frequently feels like the band, sadly, doesn't.

Critic's Notebook

Respect corner: Vocalist Eric Bachmann swigs liberally from a bottle of white wine throughout the performance. Glasses are for sissies.

Personal bias: When I was in my teens, I once made a mixtape that featured "Web in Front" no less than four times, scattered throughout. That's how much I loved that song. (Icky Mettle in its entirety remains one of my favorite albums of the early '90s).
   
Critic's Notebook: Why does Eric Bachmann sound healthier now than he did 20 years ago? His vocals aren't nearly as rough as they used to be. Is there such a thing as Benjamin Button-voice?

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