There was a line of people snaking down 14th street from Black Cat to Saint-Ex to get into the Nada Surf concert. Most people in said line seemed to be surprised they had to wait at all, and with so many people. This is kind of the special thing about Nada Surf; every fan believes the band is their little secret. The truly great thing is that this misconception seems to be held by people of complete different generations. Mostly it was white men in their 30s-40s all wearing chunky glasses (could not confirm whether most were prescription or pretension) but there were also elementary schoolers holding noise-softening headphones with their grandfathers and elderly women discussing which neighborhood restaurants were good for brunch. Nada Surf at Black Cat was truly an all-ages show.
When I told people I was going to see Nada Surf, most of my friends said “oh yeah, they sang that song ‘Popular’ right?” For a chunk of the population, Nada Surf is a one-hit wonder from 1996. To me and the other fans eagerly waiting to see the band do a very special set this past Wednesday night, Nada Surf really hit their musical zenith with their 2002 album Let Go. That album was what the crowds were there to fete that night: Let Go was celebrating its 15th anniversary (the tour is billed as the 15th anniversary though 2018 to 2002 is more than 15 years.). I do love their previous album Proximity Effect (1998), but Let Go was the album where Nada Surf really discovered a consistent, mature sound that could carry them beyond the nerd-rock, stunted adolescent music of their 90s peers.
Let Go was also the soundtrack to my first love. My freshman year of college I met the drummer of a mid-level rock band off of the band’s message board (this definitely dates me). Even though he was in Los Angeles and I was in Chicago, we crushed hard on each other through e-mails, IMing (Google it, kids), and most importantly CDs. Let Go was released the month before we started talking in October of 2002 and the drummer’s band toured with Nada Surf a couple times. He sent me copies of both Proximity Effect and Let Go as love letters of a sort. He wasn’t the songwriter in his band, but he was really passionate about music and used these albums to express his feelings for me. I was so swept up in the romance of a long distance love with an older, famous (in my indie rock fandom) musician. I’d vaguely heard of Nada Surf as the “Popular” band my older sister liked when we used to tape music videos off MTV onto a VHS tape. Now, in 2002, Let Go, became the soundtrack for our love story and our relationship’s demise.
That’s the true beauty of the album. It’s the perfect music for falling in love and for breaking up. There’s the first track “The Blizzard of ’77,” which has the line “I miss you more than I knew”, which seemed to speak perfectly to my mood, looking at the snow falling outside my dorm room, with my boyfriend thousands of miles away. The next track, “The Way You Wear Your Head,” has the lyrical bop of “I want to want you, I need to need you, I’d love to love you” that possesses the jittery energy of a crush. The third track, “Fruit Fly,” gives the most solid breakup advice of “What can you do but go on?” “Hi-Speed Soul” is the original song to shake off the haters of your relationship with the peppy “It’s just you and me, let’s go anywhere.” In “Killian’s Red,” they address the pressure put on a long-distance relationship, or any dysfunctional relationship for that matter, with “there’ll be no more crying. You’re gonna make it all better instead.” And there’s “Inside of Love,” which even from the title seems obvious but it’s a song about yearning for what you don’t have.
I could annotate the entire track list and the subsequent lyrics but that’s too naval-gazing, even for me. The point is that Let Go is an album with instrumentals that careen from moody to jittery and lyrics that poke the mushy spots and for me and that very mixed-age crowd that gathered upstairs at Black Cat, we all believe that Nada Surf wrote the album for us. It’s at once about universal emotions with the intimacy of sharing a very personal moment.
The band had no opener and played Let Go from start to finish, then took a break and played a second set with songs from a variety of their albums. I haven’t seen the band perform since around 2008, but while their fans have aged, their sound hasn’t. Singer and guitarist Matthew Caws may now be a silver fox, but his voice carries across the club with a youthful energy and hope. Daniel Lorca still spots his signature dreadlocks and his vocal chemistry with Caws hasn’t wained. The album sounded as solid as it does if you pulled out your CD from 2002. They interspersed a few “making of” stories about the album, like Caws having to write and record a song in a hotel room bathroom while Lorca was asleep, but mostly they kept to the music. It would have been kind of cool if the show was set in more of a VH1 Storytellers atmosphere where the band could talk more about song inspiration and what it’s like to sing the songs they created over 15 years ago.
The songs hit a bit of youthful nostalgia. There was certainly an energy to hearing a band I last saw live before I was married with a kid. Back in 2008, I was single and would still yearn for that drummer ex of mine from time to time. Now that ex and I talk about our respective spouses and babies via text. I even joked with him about the preponderance of bespectacled white dudes in the crowd and how I’d definitely seen one I’d dated in years past. My life, like Nada Surf’s, is certainly different that in was in the early ’00s but the music still holds up. When they returned to play their second set they made mention to the current topic of sexual harassment and rape culture (that they boldly anticipated and addressed with their 1998 song “Mother’s Day”) and gave props to journalists in this political climate before they sang their 2008 song “The Fox”. And because they know they had fans in the audience from 1996 that still are bitter over high school hierarchies, they played “Popular” as an encore.
They truly proved that their song may address emotions of fan’s younger years but they also hold relevance today. That was also reflected in the enthusiasm of their young fans that were seeing them for the first time. At their merch table, they even sold a baby onesie emblazoned with their lyric “Too tired to eat too hungry to sleep” from their song “See These Bones” which proves they’re ready to speak and sing to another generation of fans.