Radio stations often put together disjointed lineups for such things as a holiday show like 107.7 The End’s Deck the Hall Ball. Because an alternative rock station like this plays so many bands from innumerable sub-genres, it can be difficult to find several acts that fit reasonably well together and can draw a large audience at the same time. In the 20th annual edition of the station’s winter festival, the end brought in some of alternative’s heaviest hitters. With Grammy nominated acts like Mumford & Sons and Death Cab For Cutie as headliners along with young up-and-comers Cage the Elephant, Foster the People, Young the Giant, Two Door Cinema Club and Grouplove lending support.
Because Deck the Hall Ball had so many bands this year, it was necessary to start rather early for a weekday. Grouplove took the stage at 4pm, and traffic kept me from getting to the venue on time to see their set. However, I had a chance to speak with the band later in the evening, and they noted that they’ll be back in Seattle with Young the Giant in April next year. I saw them in Salt Lake City earlier this year, and I can attest that they are a phenomenal live band. They plan to start work on their sophomore release this summer, after the tour with Young the Giant.
Two Door Cinema club was one of three bands on the bill that I hadn’t seen live before. They were very high energy, and tracked as many songs from their debut Tourist History in their allotted thirty minute window. They hit on two of my favorite songs from the band in “I Can Talk” and “Come Back Home” among others. Though playing second in a long bill, the early crowd supported them as though they were headlining. Two Door responded with a great, high-energy set that was great for long-time fans and new fans alike. Though their album has been out for less than a year, I am excited to hear new music from this band; they are one of the many bright spots on the horizon for Alternative music.
Young the Giant was the next band to take the stage. Just prior to the start of their set their label rep walked up to me to say hello. He was very excited for me to see his band for the first time, and I met his enthusiasm as the first chords of their set began to echo in the arena. This band is surprisingly high-energy when they play live; at least they were this night. Several times throughout their set I found myself thinking “This is awesome!” They have a showmanship not seen in a lot of “indie rock” bands who tend to eschew that element of performing for a more introspective approach. Not these guys. Lead singer Sameer Gadhia was all over the place, alternately singing into both of the microphones at the front of the stage. As the band began to wind down they played “Islands,” one of the more down tempo tracks on their eponymous debut album. The fullness of sound coming from the band, even when taking it down a notch, was noticeable, and where the crowd can be lost when a band plays a ballad, Young the Giant kept the attention of the sold out show and rewarded them with a fantastic performance of an amazing song. They played their current hit “Cough Syrup” early in the set, and closed with the song that put them on the map: “My Body.” The crowd erupted at the first notes of the bass line that starts the song, and the band fed off the increased energy and delivered a resounded finale to their already meteoric, if all too brief, set. Throughout their time on stage Gadhia repeatedly reminded the audience that they will be back in April for a show at the Moore. A show that many in the audience will surely attend after getting a taste.
Foster the People performed amazingly on the heels of the previous band. I have seen these guys twice, both in places that hold well under 1,000 people, and they have come a very long way since playing the intimate confines of Kilby Court in March. They have learned how to perform to a large crowd in the short time since catching on commercially. Unlike the previous bands this day, Foster the People incorporated a sizable lighting element to their performance. Tapping the songs that you’ve no doubt heard many times on your local radio station like “Pumped Up Kicks” and “Don’t Stop,” they built the audience into a frenzy with their synth-assisted pop melodies. With their big light show and bigger sound Foster the People proved their condensed rise to the top has been no fluke. They have learned the tricks of playing to an arena audience, which will only help them continue to play to large audiences. So many bands that have “overnight” success don’t learn how to play to the larger crowds quickly enough, and it is more than apparent from this performance that they are not going to fade back into obscurity, but are seizing their opportunity and are looking to dominate the landscape for years to come.
Cage the Elephant was the next band to take over the spotlight. After the crowd was worked into a frenzy by the dance friendly tunes of Foster the People, Cage brought the rock back to the stage. As I tweeted that night, “Cage the Elephant is one of the very best young rock bands today.” Cage represented a shift change from the newest and brightest of the Alternative format to the middle-weights. The first band of the day that has more than one album out, Cage the Elephant are tireless in their touring, and their commitment comes out on stage. I have had the pleasure of seeing Cage live four times now, and this was definitely their largest crowd, the only other to come close was the first time I saw them at Coachella in 2009. Lead singer Matt Shultz has improved as a frontman every time I’ve seen the band perform. His antics on stage, and his penchant for diving into the crowd, repeatedly, help them to connect with the audience and turn an arena show into a club show. To the crowd’s delight, the band kicked off their set with “In One Ear,” the opening track from their debut album. During their second song, “2024,” Shultz made his first foray into the crowd. In a year when the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind was celebrated, Cage the Elephant is one of the few young bands with an obvious influence, and it is very obvious. With their punk rock aesthetic and minimalist light show, which allowed the rock to speak for itself, Cage the Elephant delivered the greatest performance of the day. To finish their set, the icing on the cake, the band played “Sabertooth Tiger” as Shultz once again found himself in the crowd, standing aloft on the hands of those in the pit, as every person in the house looked upon the spectacle.
With each act upping the ante and making it increasingly more difficult for the following act, Death Cab For Cutie accepted the challenge of following the heaviest act of the day as home town heroes returning to Key Arena for the second time in as many months. Only six weeks prior the boys from Bellingham held their homecoming and played a huge show at the same venue. I was curious how they would change their set list for those that attended both shows, and they made quite a bit of changes to keep from repeating themselves. Though they were limited in time, the band managed to squeeze in three songs they hadn’t played at the end of October, including a second track from their 2000 album We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes. They also played crowd favorites like “The New Year,” “Soul Meets Body,” and “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Even some minor glitches and feedback couldn’t derail the band as they continued to play for the monstrous crowd without missing a beat. Even though their time was truncated, they managed to give the crowd another great show that spanned most of their catalog.
To finish the festival, Mumford & Sons took the stage and wasted no time surging into “Lover’s Eyes,” and never letting up. It isn’t easy to close out a long day of music like this, but the British bluegrass rock band performed admirably and kept the crowd whipped into a frenzy for most of their set. With Mumford, the subtlety of their performance was what stood out the most. Yes, they have a lot of dynamic range, going from full boar to a crawl and back sometimes within the same song. Their horn section were ridiculously good, adding a depth to the songs that isn’t fully realized even on the album. I also didn’t realize (but wasn’t surprised to learn) that Mumford is such a jam band. They took a couple songs on long tangents before coming back to finish a verse. It was reminiscent of Dave Matthews Band. The highlight for me was “Little Lion Man;” not because it’s a popular song or that they played it very well (though they did play it very well, with a few small twists), but because of the Christmas lights strewn about the arena from the light rigging out across the floor. When the lights came on, they hadn’t been used all day, the room immediately shrank. It was though the roof fell in on the place and an intimate show erupted from the rubble. The feeling was palpable in the room, and the energy fed the band to a roaring crescendo through the song with thousands of fans yelling “I really fucked it up this time” back at the performers in unison. As the band wound down, and the encore break hit, the exodus began and it was apparent the day was ending. The band returned to play their smash hit “The Cave,” capping a great day of music with one of the best songs performed that day.
As I left the venue with the herding crowd, there were many stories being told, many favorite moments being recalled, and many a happy face. Some of my favorite bands all on one stage together being shared with a few thousand friends. What better way to spend a Wednesday evening? I can’t think of a single one.