The question facing Jack Antonoff Thursday night at Webster Hall was: did he want to perform a consistent set or did he want to perform a set that built and then exploded? By moving his best song, the epic glam rock masterpiece from the second song, where he had been playing it all year, to the middle of the set, he chose the latter and the result was exactly what you might expect, a fine but not thrilling 25 minutes leading directly to a stockpiled thrill after thrill after thrill for the following 35 minutes. It was something of the nature of delayed gratification and it worked very well… once you got past the first 25 minutes.
And once you got past the opening act. The worse thing about Misterwives is their terrible, terrible band name and once you get past that, lead singer Mandy Lee is like a Gwen Stefani circa Tragic Kingdom, only even more energetic and not quite as much sparkle. The band themselves are No Doubt like in that they carry their horns on their hips, they are hip, but they are also indie pop and they have certainly listened to fun in the past, they seem thrilled to be there though the moment they signed to UMG you knew they’d be hot on the circuit. And though I have only now listened to their debut EP Reflections, not knowing a single song didn’t lessen my pleasure in the 30 minute set.
But that’s not why we’re here. The last time I saw 30 year old wunderkind songwriter jack Antonoff on stage was at Terminal 5 two years ago and I truly didn’t notice him despite Jack having co-written two of 2012’s best songs, “Some Nights” and “We Are Young”. Nate Reuss stole the spotlight. Jack’s credits are wider then that as well, co-writing hits with Sara bareilles, Taylor Swift and more. Not to mention his secondary band Bleachers, who I missed at Governors Ball despite “Rollercoaster” being my own personal song of the summer.
The album “Rollercoaster” emerged off Strange Desire, has two other killer tracks, “You Are A Mystery” and the breakthrough hit “I Wanna Get Better” and Antonoff held all three for the second half of the set, the result was a slow star despite Jack and the band being energetic to the point of delirium with the multi instrumentalists in the band flipping for sax to synths, bass to protools, and Antonoff making you wonder why he drifted into the background with fun. In the past and from a distance, there has always been something nerdy about Jack: he looks a little like Benjie in the Summer Of 42. But not any longer, with a really spiffy fade and, later in the set, in just a tank top, Jack has the swagger of a rock and roll star. And while neither “Wild At Heart” nor “Shadows” nor, god forbid, the long arty one “I’m Ready To Move On” igniting the audience, he has enough charisma to keep the audience’s attention and then some. I was near the stage at the sold out and small anyway Webster Hall but I saw a very attentive, very first year out of college crowd hang on the 30 year old celebrity pop star’s every word yet without quite giving themselves over to the music.
Until 25 minutes into the set when a cover of the Cranberries “Dreams” ignited both Antonoff and the fans. Jack introduced the song by asking what decade the audience was born in and got dead silence by the time he reached the 1970s. Jack was raised in the 1990s and The Cranberries, a much worse live band than Bleachers have proven themselves to be, were part of his youth. He embraced “Dreams” with one part karaoke, one part Kumbaya and two parts rock and roll revival and shared verses with the folks in the audience and set the place alight. The next song was do or die time, a step back would seriously stall the proceedings but Jack knew this and he had kept “Rollercoaster” in his pocket for just this moment. Man, Antonoff swooped down and carried the evening off with a song so great they named a ride at Six Flags after it: everybody knows the song. I realize the streaming figures say “I Wanna Get Better” is the song to beat but it isn’t. Folks don’t get songs this big, this glam Bowie pop mode T Rex thrilla up and sway rock and roll as good as this and, oddly enough, he didn’t perform it great (the whispered verse was botched with an uncomfortable and poorly placed shout out to New York) but its position was so strong, and we were so into it that it didn’t matter.
It got Jack where he was aiming for, a sprawling masterful “You’re Still A Mystery” where the New Jersey native finally seriously channeled patron saints of all things swamp like Bruce Springsteen. Jack is on the record as to “Rollercoaster” being his Bruce moment but it isn’t, it is his the Rubinoos moment (a compliment by the way). “Mystery” is where Jack wanted to be all along, it is where Patrick Stickles will go tonight at the same venue: stripped down to where Jack is wearing only pants rolled up past the ankles, boots, and a wife beater bearing the legend “If you go to jail you still have to eat dinner” and sweat dripping off him, meet the new Boss introduces the band and sways the audiences, high fiving, slinging his guitar to his side as though it is a prop and a power tool at the same time, leaving the stage for other members to shine and bringing the entire end of days finale to a tenth avenue over the top conclusion.
Jack returns for a solo acoustic Steel Train (his first band) cover, and ends the evening with the big hit “I Wish I Was Better” an hour after the band had hit the stage. Bleachers isn’t a vanity project, it is a real deal rock and pop band with an ear for the charts that Jack has traversed more than once before and live a dirty recklessness during a set which if he had just one more goodie to slip in early, would have been huge. Bleachers a small big band but Jack is a bigger than that description modern pop songwriter and he earned his keep. Overwhelmed by a celebrityhood he wears very comfortably, Jack no longer looks like Benie in “Summer Of 42” and now resembles Oscar in “Class Of 44”. He carries himself like a rock star and also like a man with a pop pedigree. With more than a few losses in his life, including a kid sister to cancer and a cousin in the Iraqi war, Jack is a middle class liberal Jewish kid with already years of therapy in his rearview mirror. Both losses are subjects he touches on in Strange Moods, the death of his sister when she was an unconscionable 13 years of age took up a verse on his largest song to date “Woke up this morning early before my family from this dream where she was trying to show me how a life can move from the darkness . She said to get better.”
This isn’t feckless rock writing, nothing on fun. Is either, this is what Antonoff called songs you can dance to and cry to. On stage , Jack is both working his way towards and also has reached where he needs to go as a front man. With a limited set of songs he gave a fine performance, a little slow start but once he got where he wanted to get he maintained the highest of quality through to the end. There is something compact and youthful about Antonoff, he looks like a nerd on minor steroids and while he isn’t quite ugly, he isn’t quite handsome either. Still, the attitude is rock and roll 101 and whether crouching or slinging, Jack has the moves of a star. It is something that takes time but there is an arriviste portion to it. The band are playing back up and a little more but not that much, Jack kept the best guitar solo, a minor but pleasant rining of the bells near the end, for himself.
The set was very good but the beginning while not dodgy wasn’t great. What he should have done was kept “Rollercoaster” in the # 2 slot, gotten rid of the arty one, added “Some Nights” in after “Dreams” and added his Tom Petty cover as the penultimate song of the evening. No, don’t thank me kid, all part of your full service rock nyc and any way even with out all of that, any son of Jersey would be proud to take the honors for the second half of the evening.
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