Thursday’s five-band show at the Midland was the first of two Halloween celebrations sponsored by radio station KRBZ (96.5 FM). There were few costumes among the 1,200-plus who attended but much of the music was dressed in fashion from other eras, mostly the 1980s.
St. Lucia was the third band on the bill, following happy-hour sets by Haerts and Wild Cub. St. Lucia is led by founder Jean-Philip Grobler, a South African with a fetish for 1980s music. As a frontman, he’s a cheerleader, an enthusiast for his own music, and his bright mood and lively antics ignited the entire 45-minute set.
Backed by a four-piece band equipped with heavy-caliber keyboards and synths, he issued an arsenal of electro-/indie-pop tunes, evoking the sounds of ’80s dance/synth-pop revelry. The set list pulled tracks from St. Lucia’s debut album, “When the Night,” including “The Way You Remember Me,” a thumping anthem laden with keyboards, buttressed by a rousing chorus and sung by Grobler in a voice that resembled Morrissey in a sunny mood. They also played “September,” a throbbing disco dirge with a Frankie Goes to Hollywood vibe, and “Elevate,” a wistful mid-tempo number that wore some Spandau Ballet costume jewelry.
Phantogram wasn’t the official headliner, but it sustained the biggest crowd of the night. The electro-rock duo from upper New York state is comprised of guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist Sara Barthel, both of whom sing lead vocals.
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Their music is as gothic and urgent as it is dancey and bears traits of an array of bands, including the Cocteau Twins, the Cure, Depeche Mode, U2 and Nine Inch Nails. Barthel is a captivating live performer with a voice that is at once eerie and angelic. Too often, however, that voice was immersed in all the waves of guitar, keyboards and percussion erupting around her. Their set list included “Running From the Cops,” “Mouthful of Diamonds,” “Celebrating Nothing” and “Fall in Love.” For “Bill Murray,” Barthel wore a disco-ball cape, sending shards of light out among the blitzkrieg of spotlights and other visuals and sending the crowd into a higher level of entrancement. They ended with “Howling at the Moon,” a somber farewell anthem that, like the rest of Phantogram’s set, made their fans happy.
The headliners were Broken Bells, a collaboration between James Mercer, leader of the Shins, and Brian Burton, the producer/musician known as Danger Mouse. They have released two recordings, including this year’s “After the Disco,” an album whose charms are quelled by its unyielding pleasantness. The set list comprised seven of its tracks plus the title track to the “Meyrin Fields” EP and eight tracks from their debut “Broken Bells” album.
Supported by two touring musicians (on drums, keyboards and bass), the duo issued 85 minutes of music that varied subtly from song to song, depending on the arrangements and Mercer’s vocal choices. As a lead singer, he is a bit of a middleweight, but his plaintive voice aptly serves the band’s electro-folky songs. He can sustain a strong falsetto, as he did during “The Ghost Inside.” He also showed he can whistle like a train, as he did during “The Angel and the Fool.”
Playing before a giant screen that delivered telescopic images from the heavens beyond and amid lights that cast their silhouettes upon that screen, the four marched through all 16 songs deliberately, keeping the small talk to a minimum.
The crowd seemed to favor tracks from “Broken Bells” more than the newer songs, but only barely. There were frequent shows of recognition and plenty of singing-along, but few outbursts. “October,” which sounded like a good Shins song, and “Vaporize,” one of the few uptempo songs, prompted big responses. “Sailing to Nowhere,” one from the first album, seemed to go adrift, defused by its own cleverness and ambitious arrangement.
They closed with “Holding on for Life,” a redemptive ballad that, thanks to Mercer’s falsetto, evoked the sound of the Bee Gees and yet another era.
BROKEN BELLS SET LIST
Perfect World; The Ghost Inside; After the Disco; Mongrel Heart; The Mall and Misery; The Angel and the Fool; October; Vaporize; Control; Meyrin Fields; Sailing to Nowhere; Medicine; Leave It Alone; The High Road. Encore: Trap Doors; Holding on for Life.