Toward the end of the show, Stephen Christian did some crowd surfing. Photo: Paul Duane
Anberlin performed to a full house at In The Venue in Salt Lake City on Oct. 15. The performance was part of a co-headlining tour with The Maine, with tour support by Lydia and From Indian Lakes. Anberlin was here on June 28 for their acoustic tour, and commanded a very healthy crowd. How many bands can manage to return three and a half months later to find an equally robust crowd waiting for them again?
Whereas the last tour was a more mellow acoustic show, Tuesday’s show was plugged in and turned up to 11. I interviewed Anberlin’s frontman, Stephen Christian prior to the show on Tuesday. Regarding the high-octane set list, Christian said, “This is the most fluid I feel like our setlist has ever been, at least in the last five years. There’s not a song I’m disappointed we are playing. The whole thing ebbs and flows. I’m not sure there’s one standout track that makes that for me, but right now, this setlist is awesome. We haven’t got a chance to play “Dance Dance Christa Paffgen,” which comes off our second record … We haven’t had a chance to play it on this tour yet, and I’m hoping for it tonight. If that’s the case, that will be my favorite song.”
Anberlin plays Utah very regularly, perhaps more than any other national touring band. Christian gushed about why they play here so often: “Honestly, it’s probably the most … unbelievable crowd. SLC is going to be up there (in the top two or three cities), if not our favorite. It’s magical, unbelievable—it’s just a staple. We are co-headlining with The Maine and we were like, ‘I bet you are stoked to get back to SLC,’ and they said, ‘Nah, we actually don’t do that well there.’ That’s unbelievable! I thought everyone does well there!”
Utah loves Anberlin. Hard. After the first few minutes of their performance, Christian and his bandmates seemed taken back by the thunderous cheering from the audience—they didn’t bask long though, getting right back to the business at hand. Throughout the night, the crowd’s singing matched the band’s volume. During “City Electric,” Christian gave some love back to the crowd, substituting in “Salt Lake City’s electric tonight” during one of the choruses of “City Electric,” much to the crowd’s delight.
Anberlin released an LP called Vital in 2012; on the day of the show, the band released an album called Devotion, which is a re-issue of all the tracks found on Vital along with B-sides and live tracks from the 2013 acoustic tour. Christian explained why the band chose to reissue the material: “Universal Republic has been our label for the last three records. When Vital came out, we felt like it was a very soft push. Universal was very honest with us and said, ‘Listen, you can stay on Universal as long as you want, but, we’re only going to push you this hard. It’s going to be very soft releases from here on out. We like you guys, but we’re going in a different direction.’ The label has artists like Taylor Swift, Jack Johnson and these massive bands … and then there’s Anberlin. What an awesome experience to have worked with Universal Republic, but we want to see if somebody else will take Vital. We believe in the record. Critics and fans alike [believe in it] … We didn’t want to lose that. We put way too much work into it. It’s like a work of art: the artist spends hours and hours painting it, and it takes almost a year to craft it, and then somebody at the gallery is like, ‘Were’ not going to show it. But if you sell it online, then that’s good for you.’ This company out of Tampa, this indie label said, ‘We’ll buy you out of your contract with Universal. We’ll buy Vital—we believe in it that much. We love the record. We know there are singles, we know the band has history, we know you can sell records.’ It’s not a permanent switch, it’s just a parenthesis of our career. We have no idea where we’re going next. After this release of Devotion, we can go back to Universal.” We can resign with this Big3 [record label]—it doesn’t matter.”
Cutesy couples constituted a large portion of the audience, and there’s reason for it. Anberlin writes catchy, heartfelt love songs that have real staying power. Though incurably romantic, their songs eschew candy-coated takes on love in favor for the nuances, layers and the often complicated endings that love brings. When asked about the romanticism of Anberlin songs, Christian gushed. “I am completely a romantic at heart. I like to pretend like I’m a fighter with my flannel shirt and my tattoos … I hate to admit that I was that guy in high school that liked poetry … E.E. Cummings, T.S. Eliot, I liked it all. The problem, with romance in movies and cartoons and Disney and all this stuff, is there’s a ‘happy ever after’—and it’s not. Anybody that’s been in love for an extended period of time or made a vow or a commitment knows that it’s not all love. There are moments when that feeling dissipates and it becomes a choice. Sure, you can feel it again, and it’s fine, but it’s not going to be this lifelong feeling of giddiness where you’re floating where nothing else matters and money doesn’t’ matter and life doesn’t matter and credit cards don’t matter and the mortgages and kids and whatever else that comes in your life … It’s not this colossal floating. There are moments: pinnacles and peaks and valleys and caverns … songs like, for instance, ‘Inevitable,’ where it talks about ‘We end up hurting the worst the ones that we love.’ That is absolutely true. If you truly love them and if they truly love you. If you love each other more than anyone on this whole world, you’ve pulled down every wall. They’ve seen your chest and your insides and your anatomy and physiology and that means they have a direct access to hurt the crap out of you. That person that you love the most is the most easy for you to attack and hurt and vice versa. I try not to make the love songs where it’s just like, ‘We’re all just going to float on.’ Even ‘I’d Like To Die’ talks about the inevitable death. There has to be a natural balance to it all. I’m not going to be in a Disney movie were the prince kisses you and, holy crap, you’ve beat a witch and you live happily ever after—because the witch keeps coming back. She keeps coming back over and over in different forms. It might be a dwarf. It might be the prince. It might be whatever. It’s going to come—it’s going to happen. I stole the line from Dylan Thomas where he says, “Dark is the way, light is a place”—same difference with love. You are going to come into dark moments. If you truly love that person, if you have truly made those commitments, if you truly believe those vows, then it’ll be back. Light is a place. There is still hope. There is still love. ‘I’d like to die’ because it’s the most sincere, earnest, real.”
Speaking of relationships, we talked about the band and what it’s like to manage the artistic whims of five very talented guys with varying musical proclivities over the long haul: “I do , but I think that bands that get that itch need to start side projects. Within the five of us, there are three side projects: a punk rock band, an indie rock band, and whatever my project is. I don’t feel like you should stray. People found you because of that formula. If you are going to switch the formula to be unrecognizable, just quit. Start a new band. You are ruining and tainting a name, and the fans aren’t coming with you. If you ever want to go back, now you are just fighting an uphill battle. Take a year off, go start a side project, tour with it, come on back when you’ve got a dose of reality and you can stop being cool. For us in Anberlin, we do have a sonic tradition … There has to be a moment of evolution, adaptation, to wherever the climate is shifting or wherever you feel you should be shifting with the natural progression of musicianship. Hopefully you are becoming a better songwriter, a better listener, a better writer. All those things better take place or you’re just re writing that same first record over and over and over. As soon as you get sidetracked from who you are or who you were, then it’s over.”
I’ve been attending and photographing Anberlin shows for seven years. I’ve watched the love affair between Utah and Anberlin develop. This is more than just a fling—I think we want to marry Anberlin. The energy of the crowd on Tuesday night confirmed my suspicion that the passion is still hot. As I wrapped up the interview on the tour bus prior to the show, I asked Christian what message he’d like to leave with the SLC fans. In his characteristically humble, anti-rockstar, gracious manner, he spouted “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
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