Live Review: Stars in Indianapolis – Deluxe at Old National Centre, 10/4/12


Let’s just put it out there up front:  On Thursday night, Stars delivered what is guaranteed to be one of the best performances to hit Indianapolis this year. Stars, who for more than a decade have been Montreal’s (if not North America’s) finest purveyors of exquisitely crafted heartbreak pop, were in the fullest command of their craft before a modest, yet thoroughly adoring, Indy audience.

For roughly 105 minutes, Stars played an enthralling set packed with many of the most compelling songs of love and heartache from their six-album career.  Of those six albums, Stars’ early September release, The North, towers alongside the best music of their thirteen years as a band.

Few bands have the know-how and skill to tug at heartstrings while getting limbs to move and delivering contact highs as expertly as Stars. It all comes down to heart. (Presumably, it’s no coincidence that Stars chose that very word for the title of a record that helped elevate them as substantial artists.) Much of the time on record and live, the immense heart bleeding all over the lyrics and choruses that Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan sing is what resonates most with sympathetic listeners.

What longtime fans of the band will be quick to point out is the instrumental superiority of Stars is garishly overlooked. In control and yet playing with enthusiastic looseness, Stars proved their merits on that front better than any fans seeing them for the first time could hope for. Multi-instumentalist Evan Cranley and keyboardist Chris Seligman brought irreplaceable, magnetic touches to the songs of The North.  Stars covered the majority on the excellent, new album on Thursday, and drummer Pat McGee deserves special recognition for his skills in a band often (regrettably) more regaled for lyricism than composition. McGee handled polyrhythmic textures (“Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It”), destructive crunch (“Do You Want to Die Together?”), and graceful restraint (“Changing Colour”) with impressive dexterity throughout the night, proving he’s one of the most underrated drummers in indie pop, rock, or whatever genre you opt to throw into the ring.

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Stars’ compelling songs of love and heartache

Now, let’s get down to Campbell and Millan. The two of them are mesmerizing performers when they carry songs on their own, but they are an impossibly enchanting duo when delivering duets and call-and-response performances in tandem. Standout examples of this on Thursday included glorious Set Yourself on Fire opener “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” In Our Bedroom After the War standout “Take Me to the Riot,” and “Do You Want to Die Together?” and “Walls” from The North. Between massively pulsating synth lines, “Walls” cuts deepest when Millan answers a reminiscent Campbell line with “we danced to ‘Hand in Glove.’” The Smiths homage certainly is apropos given the legendary Manchester band’s substantial influence on the Canadians. It felt fitting being fortunate enough to watch Morrissey dish out an arresting performance on network television the night before seeing Stars play Indianapolis; Torquil Campbell is a worthy disciple of Moz when it comes to on-stage charisma and enchanting melodrama.

Even given the sublime musicianship and alluring stage presence at the heart of Stars’ performance this night, the characteristic that catapulted their set into the pantheon of indispensable live shows was that of their total graciousness. Rarely do you see a band that has been around as long as Stars have been who are so transparently in love with their art and their fans. If touring is a necessary chore to them, they hide their apathy better than any band around. Throughout the night, Campbell repeatedly heralded the crowd as a great audience, stipulating early on how impressed the band was “even if there (weren’t) a million people.” (I estimated it to be a disheartening 300 of a 500-capacity.)With total humility, Campbell wore the band’s hearts on his sleeve by expressing the deep fulfillment Stars receive when enthusiastic fans buy their records, tickets to their shows, and sing along to their songs after thirteen years.

Opening bands California Wives and Diamond Rings served up two very different brands of pop and won plenty of new fans in the process. Chicago’s California Wives struck me as a promising, young band with strong musicianship in the vein of early Phoenix or Walk the Moon.  They play a likeable brand of garage rock big on hooks and winning solos, and they’re strongest moments rode guitarist Graham Masell’s inspired leads and Joe O’Connor’s formidable talents behind the kit. Unfortunately, Jayson Kramer’s lead vocals were buried in the mix to point that roughly 90-percent of the lyrics were a struggle to make out.

Diamond Rings, the musical moniker of flamboyant musician (this night fronting a tank-top-clad four-piece) and songwriter John O’Regan (sporting shocked white hair, white tank, white denim jeans, a thick gold chain, eyeliner and lipstick), presumably left Indianapolis with dozens of new fans in his corner. A buzzworthy, Pitchfork-approved indie act in the past few years, Diamond Rings delivered a versatile mix of glam rock, 80s synth, early 90s hip hop, and boy band cheese during the set. Personally, the majority of Diamond Rings’ sound is not in my wheelhouse, but O’Regan’s stage presence is magnetic (think Bowie meets Gaga  boy band star of your choosing) and many fans in attendance seemed enraptured by the vibe.

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Stars love you as much as you love them

The openers both did sufficient enough work and likely turned on a few new listeners, but, within minutes, Stars’ performance was the only music that would resonate by night’s end. The truth is few bands could have stacked up against the magnificent warmth and heart that bled through every inch of Stars’ set on Thursday.  Nearing the end of the night, Stars’ Campbell once again expressed his thanks and served up the following essential wisdom: “I hope this was special for you. It has been special for us. Stay with your friends, don’t hold a grudge, start a band. Fuck it; life’s too short.”

The sympathetic humanity intrinsic to Campbell’s sentiments sums up just about everything you need to know about Stars if you’ve never seen them. If you have, that knowledge is already buried deep inside you. Other bands may say it, but you wholeheartedly believe it when it comes from Stars: They are as in love with you as you are with them.

Pick up Stars’ fantastic sixth album The North via ATO Records.

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