Words and photos: Dan Singer
During my interview with Zach Rogue on Monday, one of the main themes of our conversation was the idea of reconnecting, whether it was with his band, fans or family. No critical discussion about his band Rogue Wave is complete without mentioning the health problems and tragedies they’ve dealt with, and on top of that, their synth experimentation on 2010’s Permalight found them a bit out of their element. So this month’s Nightingale Floors and its accompanying tour make up Rogue Wave’s attempted return to form, a chance for them to persuade their fans that they are the same earnest indie rock band as before, if not a better one.
Underneath their reverb-y guitars at the Black Cat Wednesday night, it seemed like they were working hard to win over the crowd. And they were successful overall, but I left the venue feeling like Rogue Wave are still in the process of recapturing their intimate charm. For a D.C. stop on a low-key comeback tour of sorts, Rogue Wave had three solid victories unrelated to their set.
1) The turnout was good. Not a full house, but enough of an audience to give Rogue Wave an incentive to keep touring. Zach sang in “Chicago X 12” that “no one comes out to see us,” but this crowd was respectable in size. Respectful? Not as much, but I’ll get to that later.
2) I spotted a wild Bob Boilen at the bar. Yes, Bob Boilen of NPR’s All Songs Considered. Not to totally let my fanboy flag fly, but if I lost Wi-Fi access forever and had to trust one person to be a reliable and credible tastemaker, it would be Bob. He embraces a wide palette of engaging music and can describe what he likes about it without critic jargon or a decimal rating system. Plus, he’s on a select list of people who still rock the fedora.
3) Caveman were a fine opening act. I spent the first part of their set stricken by a disease I made up called “Hypecynicitis.” Sure, Cavemen sounded good, but was I going to care about them in five years, after hundreds of other it-bands get a moment to play up their slight variation on the melodic indie sound?
Probably not, I thought, and maybe I still feel that way. But at some point a few songs in, I went from acknowledging the band’s tact to appreciating it. They had an Arcade Fire-esque immersive quality to their songs that diffused throughout the room before fully soaking in. The lead singer banged away on a floor tom – not unlike Marcus Mumford and his holy bass drum – but he was deft, adding far more texture than thump. Caveman had the kind of set where you let the bass notes vibrate in your toes and you space out a little bit.
It was refreshing, and a very nice lead-in to Rogue Wave. Since it’s that kind of a week, I’ll describe Rogue Wave’s aforementioned “intimate charm” in terms of Yeezus. Simply put, a topic of discussion regarding Kanye’s latest pertains to whether or not his lack of subtlety is effective. Rogue Wave, at their best, play with subtle touches that give Zach Rogue’s understated melodies and lyrics a poignant humanness. On the flip side, when that subtlety doesn’t embed itself in the listener for whatever reason, the songs find themselves a tad bland. Rogue Wave can be as immersive as Caveman, but in a different way. They need room to breathe and a patient, attentive audience.
Opener “Siren’s Song,” off of Nightingale Floors, was my favorite in the set because it navigated the expansive and delicate balancing act expertly. 2005’s “Publish My Love” came in a close second. Both of these songs showed Rogue Wave in a clearly rejuvenated state, as did fan-favorite “Lake Michigan.” And the band seemed happy to be back on tour, especially Zach, who passed out flowers to the crowd and joked that his last name was actually Snowden. When every element in the Black Cat seemed to click into place, the results were lovely and kind of heartwarming, given the whole narrative of a band finding their footing once again.
Unfortunately, Rogue Wave struggled to maintain this momentum for extended stretches. Granted, it wasn’t totally their fault. The crowd was chatty, and an obnoxious murmur seemed to be present during the entirety of the set. I’d be a hypocrite if I said I’ve never talked during a show, but jeez, folks. This got annoying quickly, and it did no favors to the songs that were just a little too quiet or meandered a little too much. The band played it cool, as they have remarkably done time and time again in the face of adversity, but it was frustrating to watch.
And when they amped up some of their bouncier songs, such as Nightingale Floors single “College,” they acquired an unnecessary bloat. Maybe it was flawed set pacing on the band’s part, or the task of incorporating songs from varying phases of the their career, but it was a shame to see the inconsistencies and atmosphere make the experience less enjoyable.
The good outweighed the bad, though. Rogue Wave are one of the most resilient bands out there, and I genuinely believe they have reason to be excited to be on the road promoting their new album. The brief chorus of “Siren’s Song” will stick with me for far longer than the talkative crowd. Rogue Wave thrive when their subtle moments become unconsciously impactful. They succeed with them comfortably present but struggle when they get drowned out or lost in the noise. Either way, someone will notice.