Stars @ Urban Lounge 09.21 with High Highs

Posted September 25, 2013 in
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Photo: Norman Wong

Stars have never come to Salt Lake City before. I know this, though it is unconfirmed precisely because no record exists. I’m certain though; I know that this has to be special. Here’s the proper introduction: Montreal-based band Stars are legends of melancholic, sincere indie pop music. Their music captures all the curious feelings of being alive in the current state of the world—with an anti-apathetic approach towards romance and politics and by a relentless appreciation of their craft. Since 2001, they’ve been an integral part of Canada’s music culture, released six full-length albums, started their own label, toured the world many times over, fell in love and had children. They’re now on tour in support of their latest album, The North. Last Saturday night, for the first time in this long and successful career, they played Salt Lake’s Urban Lounge.

In my sophomore year of high school I was casually introduced to a song by a band called Stars. Whether this happened by chance or by fate, I’ll never know. “They’re from Canada and they write songs about love and sex and death,” I was told. This song, called “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead” was the first “indie” song that I had ever heard. It led me to Stars’ third album, Set Yourself On Fire, and their friends, Broken Social Scene—my teenage obsession. At one point I was the SLC street team for their collective label Arts & Crafts. This song also led me to everything after it. I don’t care about being objective here. This is my gateway band. I am Christian and this is my heart.

I had so many expectations leading up to this night, but I suddenly found myself losing them. This slipping away of tension made the evening sweetly exhilarating. The show nearly sold out, so the venue—Urban Lounge—was comfortably packed. Four large disco balls were suspended from the ceiling as a small but elegant transformation of the sparsely decorated venue. Australian band High Highs, who opened for Vampire Weekend at Red Butte earlier this summer, took to the stage shortly after 8 p.m. They performed as a three-piece, with guitar, keyboards and drums all whirling around Jack Milas’s quiet, contemplative vocals. The set was beautifully paced. My head was spun into a calm frenzy. My heart was beginning to pound faster and faster against my chest. I tried to remain observant despite losing any sense of clarity.

When it was time, Stars took to the stage, confident but hesitant. They’re a successful band of seasoned musicians and artists—still, Amy and Torq seemed unsure of themselves in those brief moments before playing, as if they were exploring this new venue in this unexplored city with a fragile caution. “We didn’t know what to expect when we got here,” said Torq later on. Neither did we, neither did we. Because of this initial trepidation, the show felt incredibly intimate. After the icy synths of “The Night Stars Here” began, the tension burst. The crowd went wild with excitement. Amy’s subtle voice, exposed and vulnerable, fighting for a place beside Torq’s melodrama, sent a shock of nostalgia through my body. “Ageless Beauty” came next, and it was gorgeous. I obviously wasn’t the only one waiting for this—tonight, everyone came out for Stars.

The band was wonderfully surprised by our enthusiasm, Torq especially. He confirmed that they’ve never been to Utah before. “This is the last time Stars will not come back to Salt Lake City,” he said somewhere in the middle of the set. They went on to play songs from all across their catalogue and a handful of newer ones from The North as well. Stars’ hearts were worn on their sleeves—the melodic pop of “Fixed,” the melodrama of “Take Me To The Riot,” the playfulness of “Death to Death” and “Elevator Love Letter,” the sadness lurking around the corner of “Midnight Coward,” all there. The band was perfect all through the night—Chris Seligman’s masterful keyboard work, Evan Cranley’s dynamic bass playing and Pat McGee’s sharp and bombastic drums underpinned every song. Between songs Torq, an expert melancholist, would shake out Smiths lines into the crowd; I caught lyrics from “Still Ill” and “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” (which was more satisfying than that Morrissey fiasco would have been earlier this year, by the way). New songs like “Backlines,” “A Song Is A Weapon” and the very recently released track “Wishful” showcased the band’s continuous creative energy. And when it was time for “Ex-Lover,” the crowd went silent as every individual was surely recounting past loves lost. We all know the song; we’ve all experienced the narrative.

During the encore, Amy and Evan returned first and played “My Favourite Book,” a bittersweet love song shared between the two of them. When Torq came back to the stage, he addressed the crowd again, saying, “We didn’t know what to play, so we’re just going to play all of it if—that’s alright with you.” They ended with “The 400.” I think. Alcohol was getting to me and I was holding back tears from the constant barrage of nostalgia. But that’s about right. Were they all singing together crouched down on the floor? Perhaps.

After they were done and everyone had at least begun to process the rarity of what just happened, I slouched over towards the green room so that I could try and awkwardly meet the band. When the door opened, though, Amy, Torq and Evan rushed out of the venue. Though my friends and I used to do the same, I hadn’t realized the young kids who’d been sitting outside of Urban Lounge were trying to catch glimpses of the performance as the door opened and closed. The three bandmates planted down in front of their tour bus to play a couple of songs for them—a beautiful thing for them to do. Torq took the lead and sang “The North” with Evan playing the acoustic guitar and Amy singing backup. Then someone asked for “Calendar Girl,” which Amy sang while slouching on Evan’s shoulder. Yeah, it was a perfect request—“November, December, yeah all through the winter, I'm alive, I’m alive, I’m alive.”

Photo: Norman Wong