1 year, 9 months and 21 days. That dear reader is how long it has been since I have been able to attend a live performance. The last show I attended prior to COVID-19 setting in for the long haul was Bloc Party’s tour for the 15th anniversary of their seminal album Silent Alarm. In a similar vein, my first show back was also an important occasion for me as I had been dying to see one of Nick Thorburn’s infamous acts (either the long deceased The Unicorns or Islands) since the early aughts. The venue for the night was Highland Park’s The Lodge Room, an old Masonic lodge built back in the 1920s. While the venue may not have the world’s best acoustics, it made up for it with its intimate atmosphere.
While I have history of not enjoying the opening act (re: Mac DeMarco, SadGirl or The Faint), I was in for a happy change of pace. The opening act was Canada’s own Menno Versteeg. While an unknown to me, Versteeg is also a part of Anyway Gang and the now defunct Hollerado, along with being co-founder of the label Royal Mountain Records (home to Snob favorites Mac DeMarco and U.S. Girls). Versteeg opened the set not with a song, but an anecdote about witnessing a well-to-do Parisian woman ruin a homeless man’s prized McDonald’s meal that he had worked hard to earn. Being only their third live performance ever, the band seemed slightly nervous and managed to get off track from their original setlist after just the first song. That didn’t matter as Versteeg has a true talent for storytelling, both within his songs and in general conversation. The bands final song of the night was Stop Having Kids, an ode to the fucked-up experiences he encountered after holing himself up in a $40 dollar a night hotel in Reno, Nevada over the Christmas holiday. Versteeg ended the set with a soft and sweet “Night, night. See you soon.”
After an hour of waiting, it was finally time for Islands to take the stage. With a discography encompassing eight albums, the setlist was filled with a well curated list of the best songs from the bands fifteen-year history. Having just released their first album in five years, the band opened their set with the first three songs off Islomania, which included the Top 40-leaning (We Like To) Do It with the Lights On. While each Islands album has always been a slight departure from its predecessor, with its synth keyboards and disco feel, Islomania seems like it was created in an attempt to appeal to a much broader audience than before. Don’t get me wrong, I personally love the Islands older work, but this was a welcome change of pace. While you can jump up and down and have fun with the band’s back catalogue, it’s not really stuff you can dance to. This was very apparent in a live setting in that the new tracks were much more danceable and had the crowd waving and shaking without a care in the world. Thorburn has a way with theatrics and exuding swagger, whether it be his ability to croon during some of his slower songs, bust out some funk with maraca in hand or just sensually wrap his microphone cable around his body.
Readers, please allow me to rant for just a minute. Having relocated back home to Los Angeles, I thought I was finally free from all the absurdity that was San Francisco. Low and behold, it was never going to be that easy; foolish me. Midway through the set as I turned to get another drink, I noticed that some idiot had brought their dog to the show and was attempting to dance with it. Why the fuck would you bring a dog to a concert! Between the sheer loudness of the show and sporadic strobe lights, said dog did not appear too happy to be there.
The set would go on to include a variety of songs off 2012’s A Sleep & A Forgetting and 2008’s Arm’s Way. Like some of my other favorite live acts such as Metronomy or Hot Chip, the band slightly tweaked some of their older songs by slowing them down, extending their run time and subbing in keyboards for a more electronic feel. Thorburn would round out the main set with one of my favorite songs, Creeper, about being murdered by a stranger hiding in your home. The encore was essentially some of the best songs off the band’s first release, Return to the Sea, including Rough Gems, an infectiously upbeat and happy song about the diamond trade and the dismal conditions it creates for those involved in the underlying process. Any longtime fan of Islands and Thorburn almost certainly started their love affair back with The Unicorns, Thorburn’s first band. It was apropos then that the band ended the night with Swans (Life After Death), a song that acts as a eulogy to The Unicorns. While not the wildest show I have ever been to, it definitely made for a memorable night and a return to normalcy, like catching up with an old friend that you have not seen in ages.