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Live Review and Photos: Passion Pit and Mister Heavenly, December 4, 2010, Fox Theater – Pomona, CA

There was a time when everything seemed bigger, especially concerts. Just getting to the concert was an adventure. You’d borrow a car from the parents of a friend and fill it past capacity. There would be an argument on the way and an inevitable lightening of the spirits, facilitated by loud music and laughter and an eventual arrival to the massive concert halls and arenas that are shrinking rapidly as popular rock music changes to a broader definition. The venues back then would seem to have endless nooks and hidden details, and every square foot was punctuated with the smell of marijuana that lingered on your clothes for a few days afterward, leaving you feeling dangerous. During the show, if you left the group, you’d tell them to meet you at the soundboard in ten minutes, knowing that if you couldn’t find them , there would be no way to get in touch with them. And you’d watch the musicians, who were beyond anything that you’d ever experienced, hiding away in a limousine-driven life that could never touch yours.

And maybe some of you are still there, though surely now most kids have cell phones to protect against losing friends at events. And marijuana just doesn’t have the same smell. I can’t tell if that is my desensitization or if the practically-legal weed just smells better. The scale of concerts and the live music experience, though,  is something that changes as you get older, and it’s something you can’t get back once it is lost. When I go to Echo Park or Hollywood, the crowd is in my same boat; having fun but in the constant, self-aware state of appearing confident and composed.

Or drunk. Lots of people at those shows are just loaded.

But the crowd that turned up for Passion Pit’s 5th (or more) area show in support of 2009’s Manners did not care about appearance or etiquette. They were there to have fun, at all cost, no matter what.

Yeah, they were in high school. And they didn’t give a fuck.

Mister Heavenly, the recent Sub Pop signing that are playing their first dates as a band were in support, and they knew exactly what they were getting into. But they had a secret weapon of their own, like a well-timed lob shot against an opponent who likes to play at the net. Yes, I’m talking about Michael Cera.

Without Cera, Mister Heavenly might have been fucked, though not of any fault of their own. Passion Pit had suddenly, err…slowly and methodically become teen heartthrobs, a status that they don’t seem to be shying away from, and though the rest of Mister Heavenly are established and talented musicians, they are not familiar to most and would likely have had trouble holding the attention of the finicky but ultimately submissive youngsters. But this wasn’t a PR stunt. Cera proved to be a competent bass player: sticking to his spot, watching Thorburn’s guitar work to make sure he was playing the right notes, and even once did one of those moves with his head, kind of like a blowjob forwards and backwards motion. You’d know it if you saw it. It was dorky, and perfectly in line with who he seems to be. Yes, this Cera addition seemed like more of a fortunate flip of the cards, though even the thought that artists the caliber of Man Man’s Honus Honus and Islands’ Nick Thorburn are not enough to excite young people is, well, it’s kind of a bummer.

But, it is my hope, and deep-seeded belief, that these were not normal young people. On the rooftop smoking deck, a couple guys were doing handstands until they could no longer support themselves and crashed to the ground. Some others were beat-boxing and practicing their flows. Keep in mind that we were at a PASSION PIT show. Paper towels covered deep red carpeting on the long curved stairway that leads from the floor to the balcony, where a young lady had recently learned a lesson in moderation. And later, when Passion Pit played their enthusiastic set, a consistent stream of adolescents would launch on to the hands of their peers and ride the current over the guard rails to the displeased arms of bouncers. Yes, they were crowd surfing. Yes, at a Passion Pit show.

But Mister Heavenly is a band, too, not just the time-killing commodity thrown on stage to buy Passion Pit their allotted pre-set downtime. Thorburn seemed to be in on the joke, hamming it up with exaggerated rock-star poses, laying on the ground after one number and soaking in the roar of the audience that literally maintained the sustained volume you associate with football stadiums.

Kids love to scream. Kids really love to scream at Michael Cera.

And Mister Heavenly’s poppy-bounce was pleasant at first listen, though I didn’t get the “doom-wop” sound they claimed to pioneer. But hearing a band in concert with no frame of reference is hardly a fair or appropriate time to analyze their sound, if nothing else, they provided the backing soundtrack to the most fun these kids have had since homecoming. The dual singers seemed to be bringing their individual band’s sound with them. Fans of Man Man (me) and Arm’s Way-era Islands (possibly me) will be pleased with the sounds I heard coming out of the speakers. And though Cera and Thorburn left the stage after their set, it was nice to see Honus and drummer Joe Plummer break down their own equipment, showing that even in this overblown environment where Passion Pit t-shirts were going for 30 bucks, the work ethic that got them to this stage still exists.

Now, the important thing to keep in mind if you see Passion Pit in the near future, is that they deserve the success they have garnered. They have been on tour for Manners for nearly 18 months, including an opening slot with Muse.  So the scene they have created is exactly what they sought, I mean, they opened for Muse. Likewise, any backlash is also justified. Anyone knows that making certain decisions to appeal to a mainstream audience could cost you some of your older fans, and Passion Pit have made these decisions with their eyes wide open. And they are perfectly suited for this. Their sound is infectious, their music fun and their personalities are large enough to fill any sized stage, or at least singer Michael Angelakos’ is. Combine all these positives with good lights and Angelakos’ increasingly distinct vocals and you have the recipe for success. Even in my horrified state I could tell that these guys are workhorses and having as much fun as their fans are. So for their audience, the show was nearly flawless. For the reviewer that was into Manners for a while but waited 18 months to finally see them, it was painful.

Opener “I’ve Got Your Number” started the night where everything began for the band, and though the EP wasn’t commercially successful for the band, it seems that the Wikipedia generation did their research and sang along without provocation. This continued for, well, every song. The show was sponsored by L.A.’s alternative radio station KROQ and I’m not sure if they play any songs by the band, but the near-capacity crowd at the 2000 person venue weren’t casual fans. They had fully absorbed the album. Which is kind of awesome. Though it’s a bummer when the music loses its personal nature by use in commercials and excessive radio play, at least the good guys are finally getting heard and the kids are exposed to higher quality art rather than the Limp Bizkit and Blink-182 that dominated my high school years.

The set was expertly paced, continuing on with “Make Light” and “Better Things”, slowing down for moments like “Moth’s Wings” and gradually building pace to the big finish of “Little Secrets.” Unfortunately, there just wasn’t much left in the tank for “Little Secrets”, which sounded incorrectly mixed on the instrumental end and poorly sung on Angelakos’ end. The build-up had enough showstopping moments to look past it, though. “Let Your Love Grow Tall” was a highlight, executed with all the drama it deserves and really allowing the Angelakos’ voice to shine. Unfortunately a couple songs later, Angelakos fell victim to the mad-with-power pitfall that strikes so many people with an audience and a microphone. He made the crowd lift their hands and then paddle them back and forth for no real reason, and of course their crowd dutifully performed as instructed. It was a reminder of everything wrong with live music and illuminated the fact that he never had to ask the audience to sing, they just did because they loved the music. When you have to ask the audience to participate, it cheapens whatever you get back from the crowd. Unrequested participation, though, can be special in its unification, but many groups don’t seem to get this.

The encore left the crowd feeling great, with their cover of “Dreams” by The Cranberries striking me in the obvious nostalgic sense, but also because it suits the band perfectly, with its gentle rise to an uplifting anthem structured so similarly to the band’s own songs. The song was popular before many of the audience members were born, which is weird, but the sense of something bigger happening in their lives was practically palpable, that the community of fellow fans were sharing something, and it was as much their neighbors as it was theirs.

But not me, not then at least. While certainly a fine show from a band that could produce exciting music if they keep their head screwed on straight, it was a night where I wasn’t the intended audience.

Outside, when the street was quiet, I stood across from the venue taking a final shot of the marquee, when walking down the street is Honus Honus with a friend, enjoying the comfortably cool night that is typical of Southern California winters. I never really approach artists when I run into them, but a childlike excitement came over me and I kooked out on him, blurting out “Man Man is the best, man,” and quickly realizing that I had said six words and three of them were  man. But the singer stopped and seemed sincerely grateful, saying “thanks man, that really means a lot to hear.” And as we proceed to have a minor exchange, I fumbled my words like an eager kid, but can see that his main band is undoubtedly his life’s passion and kind words really make him happy to hear. And though it was outside the venue and no music was playing, I was one of those teenagers for a minute, losing my composure and willing to look foolish to connect with…something. Music felt big again.

Oh, and a new Man Man record should be out in April.

Passion Pit Setlist:
I’ve Got Your Number
Make Light
Better Things
The Reeling
Moth’s Wings
Swimming in the Flood
To Kingdom Come
Let Your Love Grow Tall
Live to Tell the Tale
Folds in Your Hands
Smile Upon Me
Little Secrets

Eyes As Candles
Dreams (The Cranberries)

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