On Thursday night, foreigners invaded the United States’ capital city: British bands Keane and the Mystery Jets played at the Strathmore last week. (Yes, ok, it was Bethesda and not Washington DC.) There was some confusion as to where the band stood, lead singer Tom Chaplin confessed: We’re trying to work out exactly where we are.” Various shouts of “DC,” “Maryland” and “Bethesda” came from the audience. “We were told we must say North Bethesda,” Chaplin said.
You’ve heard Keane before. Their succinct pop gems like “Somewhere Only We Know” and “Is it Any Wonder?” were transmitted repeatedly on the (American and UK) airwaves in the early 2000s. Their newest single, “Silenced by the Night,” may have reached your ears. Opening with strong songs, including “Everybody’s Changing” and “You Don’t Know Me at All” from their earliest work, the 4 piece band filled up the huge stage at the Strathmore (partially due to a giant white platform for the color-changing drum kit, complete with a set of stairs).
Chaplin too helped their presence onstage, usually with an energetic skip or huge walk up and down the length of it. It was surprising actually how involved Chaplin was in onstage theatrics. He gestured along with the lyrics he sang, threw his arms out, walked up the drum platform, walked down the drum platform, spun and faced the back of the stage. It was strange for a band with such a sleepy, sunny style. They were self depreciating (“Can you stand one more song?”) but under that, confident, which was something you could tell at moments like the one when Chaplin surveyed the cheering audience with a self satisfied smile and popped his denim jacket’s collar up just a little higher.
Keane sold out the Strathmore. The crowd hung on every word between songs, sang the lyrics (they knew them all by heart) and that they cheered loudly from every corner of the venue (including “up there in the clouds,” as Chaplin titled the mezzanine levels). They’re a well practiced band with catchy songs but it surprised me that they have such a following; see: families with preteens, near-seniors, adults of all kinds in their thirties and forties. It shouldn’t astonish me, I guess. Their catalogue is packed with family friendly, piano based, feel good, Coldplay style love songs and motivational ballads (see “On the Road”). There’s also a bit of musical theater in the vocal melodies and lyrical style, like in the lyrics of one they played called “Neon River:” “She said the neon on the river will light my way / And everything that we’ve been dreaming of, we’ll make it real one day. / So save your money, pack your bag / We better run before we disappear./ She took the train into the city but you’re still here.” Whatever the magic spell, it made people stand up and clap, sway and dance despite the obstacle of a seated venue. Chaplin quipped, “This is one of the most extraordinary venues [they played in] … a beautiful building. We feel like we should be singing opera.”
Playing many of their older successes like the gentle “Other Side” and the energetic “Crystal Ball,” the real standout instruments are piano (they’re labeled “piano rock” everywhere) and vocals. The piano provides glittering, bright tones in a majority of their songs, the real heart of the band that’s partially beating, partially twinkling on songs like the aforementioned “Neon River” and “Somewhere Only We Know.” Chaplin has a sweet, unusual vocal tone that lays the foundation for the infectious hooks on songs like “Nothing in My Way.” Interestingly, on this song, pianist/vocalist Tim Rice-Oxley sang backup, but softly as if he were singing it to himself. They finished up with a couple songs from their newest album Strangeland (“Seafog,” “Silenced by the Night”). Keane went down smooth and easy.
Mystery Jets warmed up the theater before Keane went on. They cracked open the set with some happy clean bright pop songs, notably “Radlands,” which is a song about “living in Austin, TX.” Ah, some American influence then, but does that explain the fringed leather jackets? Their guitar parts and bass lines were akin to bare-bones Radiohead jangles and vaguely western, in the case of “Young Love.”
Seats hadn’t completely filled yet (probably a result of traffic and the after-work doldrums) and their singer seemed self-conscious about that, asking a couple times if the audience was “ready for Keane.” They still had fun, though; guitarist William Rees joked, “We heard Obama is backstage. We heard he likes English pop bands, is that true?” Their songs felt very similar but they did have great coordination and syncopation, especially between slide guitar and other instruments, which changed up the sound a bit. Singer Blaine Harrison, I hate to say, had a voice akin to Keane’s Tom Chaplin. Impressively, on “Lost in Austin,” they used a three part harmony, which not something I see onstage at most concerts. A laid back performance with frontman Harrison sitting (also unusual in a venue this big) and the other members playing a well-coordinated-but-calm set, the Mystery Jets laid a solid foundation for Keane.
- more Keane photos:
- Mystery Jets