Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR
Christian rock is perhaps the most fairly maligned genre on the planet. Though many people have a soft spot for bands like DC Talk or Relient K—not to mention Tooth & Nail Records as a whole—by and large, saying that a band makes “Christian music” is a surefire way to convince the average person to not listen to a band. At the merch table, after watching mewithoutYou, I caught up with the frontman of opening band Smidley, Conor Murphy (notable for having made a perfect album with his other band earlier this very year about being “shortchanged with the Lord”). I asked him how he felt about being a recovering Catholic and routinely listening to a crowd of people joyously sing “Open wide my door, my Lord/ To whatever makes me love you more.” “It’s not like they’re Creed,” he said with a laugh. He went on to say that they were “a breath of fresh air” when he was younger because of the conflict of faith built into their music, where you believe in the power of God, but are still really pissed off at him.
That conflict is what makes mewithoutYou such an enticing band. Singer Aaron Weiss succeeds as a lyricist because, while clearly a believer, and he writes from a point of inner struggle, which makes his lyrics that much more potent. His look—a dark beard, a surprisingly tasteful comb-over, a plaid shirt with a hoodie (ditched after a few songs of it falling down)—gives the impression that he’s not sure about being a performer. “Anyone who’s seen us play here has heard me say that it’s one of my favorite places to play. There’s a higher concentration of dear friends than usual here,” said Weiss, his voice stuck permanently in a mouse-like tone of perpetual nervousness. He seemed bashful about the expression of fondness, which could easily fall on the side of being an empty platitude but instead came across as genuine.
Once he’s performing, however, that awkward energy gels into a singer capable of getting a crowd riled up. The audience, pogoing up and down through most songs, was half the fun of the evening. Like any emo band, mewithoutYou has a highly-devoted fanbase that pore over Weiss’ lyrics like gospel, shouting along with every word, well aware of every inflection. At one point, as he walked to the edge of the stage to grab hands while singing, the ecstatic mass seemed poised to pull him into the crowd. Later, he joked about how the younger version of himself, who had dreams of being in a band and “travelling the world and making out with girls,” was too “comfortably heterosexual” (which is a fascinating euphemism) to accept the fact that the sea of hands was exclusively men.
While Weiss was a delight to watch, the show’s downfall was how difficult it was to hear him. mewithoutYou is a quintessential talkie-core band, with Weiss functioning more often as a fearful slam poet with a freakishly good backing band. The sound in Portland’s Wonder Ballroom is often somewhat touch-and-go, and with his vocals drowned out by the rest of the band, the thrill and joy of the music felt stripped away. His backing band, though talented, clearly rely on their singer’s manic energy to propel their shows—their energy starts and ends at their musical abilities, more content to perform in place than put on any kind of theatrics. While the band’s material from this year’s [Untitled], which leans less heavily on Weiss’ talk-singing , sounded somewhat better than the rest of their older material. Classics like Brother, Sister and Catch for Us the Foxes didn’t get nearly enough representation, either, while debut [A→B] Life was omitted entirely. With notables like “C-Minor” and “Tie Me Up! Untie Me!” thrown in, and an encore of Foxes opener “Torches Together” and Brother, Sister closer “In a Sweater Poorly Knit,” though, it’s hard to quibble too much with the setlist.
It’s a shame, then, that their show was rendered difficult-to-connect-with by sound issues and somewhat wooden stage presences. And yet, in general, if you’re able to un-roll your eyes at the idea of a band earnestly singing “Lord, I could never show you anything as beautiful as You” without a hint of irony—and selling the turmoil that accompanies that sentiment far better than the Casting Crowns and Newsboys of the world ever have—mewithoutYou are still too talented to easily pass up.