Bands that are better in concert aren’t uncommon, but here’s one that justifies their existence by playing live.
Aladdin Theater, Portland, OR
Stars, for me, occupy a strange space. Having grown up loving Set Yourself on Fire and In Our Bedroom After the War, I have a substantial soft spot in my heart for the band – yet despite this, their albums typically fail to grab me. They aren’t bad, but outside of No One Is Lost, they are merely a good band. What separates them from other good-but-not-great bands is the fact that, no matter how their studio recordings sound, they grow into something substantially better when performed live. I walked into their Aladdin performance in support of No One Is Lost excited to scratch a name of my “Adolescent Faves” list, but walked away hungry to see the band play again. Bands that are better in concert aren’t uncommon, but here’s one that justifies their existence by playing live.
The unfortunate thing is that their performance at the Aladdin in support of last year’s good-but-not-great There Is No Love in Fluorescent Light lacked the fury that their 2015 show did. But Stars made up for it in raw joy; singer Torquil Campbell stalked the stage gracefully, his mild British drawl sounding slightly more worn down over time but still managing to brush with the intensity that made Set Yourself on Fire feel invigorating in 2004. Singer/guitarist Amy Millan has always left the stage presence game to Campbell, but she manages to sing her lungs out with grace. The dual vocals of the two are part of what make Stars so great in the first place, her soaring voice pairing perfectly with Campbell’s plans.
The band appeared to be loaded with joy the entire time you got to be in their presence. They’re positive enough that, when they set down their dramatics, it’s impossible not to want to dance. We only got two quieter moments from the band – including In Our Bedroom deeper-cut “Personal,” a song about the perils of internet dating, and “Your Ex-Lover is Dead,” one about divorcing yourself from someone you used to love – but the remainder of the show saw Stars in a daze. With the former, Campbell warned that it was “the most depressing” song in their arsenal, restarting at a point to make sure they weren’t giving a half-assed version of a song they “haven’t played in years,” according to Millan. Because we didn’t get more of these vivid moments, though, the show maintained a flat sonic trajectory, a fact that grew mildly tiresome.
While this show may have lacked the punch of their last show here, they were still radiant. “This is the most fun I’ve had doing this in 18 years of playing music,” Campbell said partway through the show. Dressed in a trucker’s cap to cover up his balding head, there was a sense of acceptance of the place that the band is at with their career. It’s easy to say all of this as a back-handed compliment, but it truly isn’t: Stars will never fill an arena, but their fanbase is truly devoted to the work that they do. They will always stand in the shadows of Broken Social Scene (and, to a similar extent, Feist), but despite this they’ve carved out a little niche for people who want maudlin-but-iridescent indiepop they can dance to and emote to. If you can manage to do that with the finesse of Stars, who cares how big you are?