Cold temperatures, a raw drizzle and general gloom descended over downtown Minneapolis Wednesday night. I chuckled at the thought of play-off baseball in Minnesota. I imagined the beginning of a long post season run with baseball fans sitting huddled, cold and miserable at Target Field. Whoever decided not to go with the retractable roof on the Twins’ stadium must have been nuts. Some nights just aren’t meant to be outdoors.
The confines of The Fine Line, however, were warm and welcoming. I walked in to catch the opening of LA rocker Jesse Jo Stark and was immediately impressed. Will admit to the fact that any prep work for the review had been dedicated to the headliner, The Vaccines. For me, she was an unknown. Sometimes opening bands try my patience. There’s a reason lots of opening bands are in that slot; they’ll never be a headliner. However, kudos to First Avenue for rarely letting this happen. Openers within their booking network are often somebody most of us have never heard of. But should.
Stark not only looked and conducted herself like a star, her band was muscular and sleek. They had some serious rock chops and put her up on a pedestal that allowed her to dominate the center of the stage. The one cover the band slipped into their set was Kim Carne’s 1981 classic Bette Davis Eyes. She brought a grinding, passionate commitment to the song that the crowd loved as she sinuously danced around the stage and draped herself over the mic stand. This is not to say that the band’s original material was not up to this same standard. It’s just that this one remained with me after the show. It was a great song by a great artist and Stark seemed say: “Move it on over, girl. A new woman is in town.” Her’s was a show, by the way, that was far too short. Clocking in a about 30 minutes, Jesse Jo Stark and her band are on the way up. I would have enjoyed a bit more.
Do you ever head out to a show knowing that you know a band and its music without really remembering how, when or where you’ve previously seen them? This was the case with The Vaccines. However, I was definitely within a very small minority. Despite the fact that The Fine Line was only at about half capacity, fans were snapping up new Combat Sports tour shirts and crowding to the front.
The stage lights dimmed, the ominous strains of Phantom of the Opera tested the sound system’s lower register. Anticipation grew and the band walked on stage to Abba’s Dancing Queen. A nice choice because The Vaccines were there on a straightforward mission: start a dance party.
The band’s three guitar onslaught opened hard with Nightclub before ripping into the 2 minute Ramones like punk rock Wreckin’ Bar. Now that everything was up to full speed they cranked out the break out hit Teenage Icon . The crowd surged. This is what they had come to see. And that who, what, when and where of my familiarity came flooding back.
If you have ever had kids who are really into music. Or a roommate you wanted to shoot. Then you can relate. Think back on that album or band they were really into. That disc they played again and again until the tunes were dripping out of your ears. You may have even liked the band a whole lot! But you reached the point where you were simply drowned. In those first few bars of Teenage Icon I was immediately transported back seven years or so. I had two teenage boys who simply could not get enough of them. A few intervening years did wonders for me, however. I enjoyed this band and was ready to once again get down and party with them.
I was reminded that the last time I’d seen them was in a sold out Mainroom back in 2011 in support of the Arctic Monkey’s break out world tour. I was also reminded that my stated opinion at the time was that I liked The Vaccines more than the headliner. That may mean that I was, and remain, wildly out of step with most of the concert going public. Or perhaps I just really liked the way they connected to that crowd without pretense or artifice. Because they once again connected without pretense or artifice on Wednesday. That’s a special quality in a band.
What you see is what you get with The Vaccines. Their sets do not come loaded with surprises or outlier type tunes. This band has a formula that works. It’s right up in your face British power pop with punk overtones. The occassional big Brit ballad gets thrown in for a change of pace. Kind of a sophisticated Ramones without the fashion or attitude but a whole lot more sophistication.
They have quite a catalog of recognizable, singable songs at their disposal. They thundered through a 17 song main set which seemed to take about 20 minutes. This was a house of dedicated fans. They knew the songs and they wanted to join in. Perhaps my two favorites of the evening came back to back and seemed to break out of that Vaccines formula. Their 2015 Dream Lover sounds like something Gary Wright may have done years ago. Or maybe they were on an ELO kick when they wrote it. In either case, it was a beauty.
That song was immediately topped by the 2011 hit Wetsuit. This one seems to draw on so many influences. It’s a vocal tour de force set over a basic tune which borrows heavily from the Irish/UK folk tradition. Shades of bands like The Oyster Band or Big Country. It was huge and The Fine Line walls seemed to swell to accommodate it.
The main set continued to build and charge toward the finish line with If You Wanna and I Can’t Quit. On the latter, someone in the audience yelled “Play it again!”. I could not have agreed more. The band finished with a bit of a curve ball in Family Friend, one of eight songs from “What Do Expect From The Vaccines?” No hard rock here. This one is a soaring, dirge-like anthem tinged with a sense of sorrow. One of those songs from that album which seemed on repeat in my house 7 years ago. It was like meeting up with an old friend. Without much fanfare the band exited the stage.
During the few minutes before they returned for an enthusiastically demanded encore, I reflected on what makes The Vaccines work in our modern day world. As mentioned previously, they are without artifice. The band is there to rock out, not to make a fashion statement or create something that isn’t simply the sum of their individual parts. Vaccines shows are dance parties. Little Steven Van Zandt of the E Street band once remarked that every good band had to first and foremost be a dance band. If you couldn’t make people get on their feet and want to dance you didn’t stand a chance.
The only thing I questioned about the band is that they can play every song live note for note from the albums. That’s admirable. In the case of a Vaccines audience it seems to make a great deal of sense. People are there to hear what they know and to participate. They still know all the songs from that break out 2011 album. They were also very much up to speed on the new album “Combat Sports”. Yet there were times I found myself wanting a song to continue, to wander, to go exploring. But then again, that’s just me. I dig spontaneity and surprise. I’m up for the experiment and completely accepting of whether or not it is “good as the original version”. But that’s not their style. Theirs is tight, fast paced and disciplined. That’s part of the appeal of bands like The Vaccines or The Ramones.
The three song encore opened with the punk pounding Surfing In The Sky and then followed up with the sing along Minimal Affection. The band made it clear the evening was done by dialing it down with All In White. The audience was satisfied and let them go. Lots of smiles all around and a lingering crowd. The line at the merch table stretched 50 people deep. Good for them to be paid what they’ve earned. Good for them that they are one of those bands people are proud to wear on their chest.