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all words: William Alberque
all photos: Shauna Alexander

Friendly Fires were nothing short of astonishing at the 930 Club on Thursday night, playing with such beauty and abandon – it felt like a gift.

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It’s not a sell-out, though it got close late – and, as with Glasvegas show earlier in the week, I’m shocked.  Friendly Fires’ Chicago and NYC dates both sold out a month ago – maybe it really is due to school being out?  Regardless, the lack of that sell-out buzz did nothing to dampen the euphoric atmosphere inside the club.

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It was an early show, and the sound system welcomed me with 1990s instrumental deep house, like someone found a particularly good R&S Records sampler and played it the whole way through.  It was the right soundtrack to prepare for Friendly Fires, but nothing could prepare me for Wise Blood.

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I would review them, but I simply do not have the stomach to type that much invective.  The enormity of their set – well, let’s say that once Mladic is convicted, there’s a place for Wise Blood in The Hague.  To paraphrase the Mighty Boosh, “have you seen this review?  …there’s no words in this one. It’s just a picture of some sick with our names underneath it.

Moving on.

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I can’t understand why Friendly Fires aren’t huge.  The first album reached gold status in the UK after almost a year in the charts, but without ever breaking into the UK top 20.  That speaks to the appeal of the band – it’s not about the hype or the marketing, it’s about the quality of the songs and the consistent excellence of their live performances.

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Tonight was no exception.  They play each performance as though it were a festival, full of energy and exuberance.  They take the stage to an atmospheric soundtrack and burst with energy into “Lovesick” from their first album.  The funky, loose, bass-driven tune instantly puts the crowd into a frenzy of dancing.  They’ve emerged with an extra member to help with guitar and keyboards (FF is a three-piece), as well as a two-piece horn section to add to the festival atmosphere.  Lead singer Ed Macfarlane leads the crowd in an ecstatic clap-along before diving head-long into the audience.  It’s an early warning shot against complacency, and it works perfectly, driving the crowd to return the energy.

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Friendly Fires follows with “Blue Cassette” from their latest effort, Pala, and it instantly brings to mind the opening from “One More Time” by Daft Punk, instantly going to a far more emotional place.  The drums are a wonder – Jack Savidge is beating his drums within an inch of their structural integrity, and the whole band (barring the horn section) is adding to the percussive din.

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Edd Gibson swaps his bass for added drums, and Ed Macfarlane is like a preacher, telling the crowd that hearing his love’s voice on a tape sets his heart on fire. It drives into a false ending, bursting again into life one last time before it dies.  Extraordinary.

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“True Love” is next, another new one, with a funk bass line similar to “Lovesick,” but the horns make it funky – almost in a Pointer Sisters way (Ed said in the NME that he wished people compared it to Talking Heads – dream on, son), segueing into the rubbery bassline of “On Board.”

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Most Americans heard FF first through the Wii Fit commercial that used this song to great effect, and it’s irresistible live with everyone (bar the bassist) manning some sort of cowbell-type contraption.  More and more of the now-full club is dancing, stretching into the first level of the balcony and VIP area.  The dance vibe hasn’t fully infiltrated the club yet, but it’s coming.

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The band continues the brilliant strategy of weaving new songs in with favorites, playing new song “Chimes” next.  Ed displays the full versatility and quality of his voice, soaring higher and higher with a beautiful comedown song from the frenetic opening.  Not content to rest, they launch into another early favorite, “Skeleton Boy,” with a cool but slower rhythm.  The crowd, however, takes it into their hands to sing along word for word, and as the song explodes into the usual mid-point Friendly Fires euphoria, the audience responds by dancing ecstatically to the music.

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The song ends with beautiful noise, and everyone is happy, so happy.  New song “Show Me the Lights” and album centerpiece “Live Those Days Tonight” follow, with “Hurting” closing out the triptych, showcasing the strengths, as well as the weaknesses of the new album.  They’re all good – though LTDT is destined to be another classic, and hopefully a single – but Hurting is just a touch weak (boy-band and R’n’B nonsense) and SMtL sounds live like a Dear Science-era TV on the Radio track.  The latter comment is a huge complement, because it’s not that good on the album.

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All this is instantly blown away when the opening notes to “Jump in the Pool” send the audience into a mad frenzy of legs and arms.  The downstairs is now in full dance-riot mode, singing, dancing, and heaving en masse to the jaw-dropping mixture of cowbell mayhem and funk that dissolve into rave-y dance again and again while Macfarlane’s alternating strong and soothingly gentle vocals transport the crowd into the heavens.  The appropriately-titled “Pull Me Back to Earth” follows, with Vampire Weekend-inspired guitars disappearing as it follows the typical FF pattern – interesting, lower-key intro breaks into a gorgeous, noisy middle, rest, dance, explode, repeat.

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“Paris” is everyone’s favorite of the night, and even the bar staff at the top bar all the way in the back of the balcony can’t resist moving to its irresistible charms.  The whole of the downstairs has their hands in the air and are dancing with mad abandon.  I am a touch sad to be in the balcony to witness this, but I am also incredibly grateful.  Ed, as befits his character, is effusive in his thanks to the audience, and they’re off for the brief interregnum before the encore.

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They don’t keep us waiting long, and come out after their brief respite for the final new song of the night, the euphoric, drum-driven all-night rave of “Hawaiian Air.” This is incredible stuff, and the audience is in raptures – guys, if you’re reading this, Hawaiian Air has –HIT— written all over it.  Release it.  The engaging intro disappears into the gorgeous chorus with a mass of guitar and percussion and keyboard noise, Macfarlane’s vocals soaring across the entire mess to beautiful effect.

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The ‘Fires close with another loved-up dance floor monster, “Kiss of Life,” the samba-on-the-beach feel completely irresistible.  [Note: I never realized it before, but there is a set of cooing vocals lifted directly from whatever song that “Barbara Streisand” is lifted from.  Listen to time signature 1:37 to see what I mean.]  Macfarlane does a ridiculously endearing sexy dance to the irresistible groove of the song (have I overused every word of praise yet?) before diving once again into the crowd, like a striker who just scored diving into a bank of adoring fans.  It’s an amazing close to an amazing night and a perfect show.

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Okay, minor quibble: I would have died a happy man if they had played their superb cover of either Lykke Li’s “I’m Good, I’m Gone,” or Depeche Mode’s “Strangelove,” (oddly, recorded for Gucci).  Fortunately, I’ve seen them play the superb “Ex-Lover” and “Strobe” live before (but never, oddly, “Relationships”), so I don’t have a lot of room to complain.

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I have seen a lot of shows this year (a lot = 40 before June) – this is close to being the best of them.  Come back soon.

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