WHEN YOU APPROACH the centre of London, the tube stations start having two doors, so you know it’s getting serious.
Always one for spur-of-the-moment decisions that involve travelling across the country for bands who reached the peak of their popularity over ten years ago, on Thursday I made my way through London from my office for the week at ITN to the Brooklyn Bowl, a venue inside The O2 that doubles as a bowling alley and is able to house probably 1% of the arena overall.
I arrived an hour before doors, third in line. First in line had travelled from Nottingham to be here; later we’d hear of people who’d travelled even further. The band in question, American Football, were about to play only their sixth ever show in the UK, following a successful reunion tour in the US and a reissue of their only LP, their 1999 self-titled.
The recent emo revival has seen bands like The Hotelier and The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die make the kind of introspective, guitar-based indie rock that began on the East Coast at the turn of the centuty, and views American Football as its ground zero. Supported by Tangled Hair and Woman’s Hour, the former a British band in the same jangly-guitars genealogy and deft drum solos as American Football and the latter a dreamier London-based outfit that boasted, true to their name, the only woman who took to the stage, a flag was raised at the back of the stage depicting the iconic house a short walk from the University of Chicago that adorns the American Football cover.
Most American Football songs, penned by Cap’n Jazz veteran Mike Kinsella in his 20s when, by his own admission, he “didn’t know what [he] was doing” are often vocally sparse, giving the instruments room to breathe. Drummer Steve Lamos cuts an impressive figure on drums, pulling some amazing facial expressions and bringing out his trumpet for some of the band’s low-tempo, jazz-inflected songs, sounding as fresh as it did on the album, 16 years previously, as do the guitar harmonies from Kinsella and Steve Holmes. Tracks “The 7’s” and the album closer “Stay Home” prove they can still bring a richness to the music.
It’s very surreal to watch a band play tracks from the only album and EP they ever released, written when many of their current fans were barely school-age, their members now married with kids but still singing for people who left their lives back in college. “Honestly I can’t remember teen dreams / All my teenage feelings” Yet for many of the people in the room, Kinsella’s lyrics, more emotional than Cap’n Jazz’s frenetic two albums (written by Kinsella’s brother, Tim) still resonate, and the crowd hangs on to every word. It’s introspective and wonderfully arranged, and Kinsella still knows how to handle an audience.
At indie rock shows, a certain number of beards can be expected. During the encore, an enormous beard attached to a man yelled to the band that he and his friends had travelled even farther afield, from Norway, to see them here tonight. “That was stupid,” Kinsella replies dryly, “Should’ve waited for the Norwegian tour.” Kinsella then asks if the band wants to do shots after the show; the beard graciously accepts.
Mid-90s emo began in basements and small suburban towns in America, the isolation that grows in those places fuelling a decade’s worth of music and a strong community that lasted through emo’s dalliance with the mainstream ten years later.
At the Brooklyn Bowl, when American Football launch into their biggest hit “Never Meant”, the community spirit might be even stronger than the smell of bowling shoes.