I have been to a lot of shows in my short life. I have been to huge stadiums and small bars; trendy clubs and festivals; capacity crowds and no-shows. I’ve spent a lot of time traversing the spectrum of live musical performances, and I can safely say that As Cities Burn’s reunion show was not only one of the best concerts I have ever been to, but that it was something incredibly strange and special.
The show was originally set to take place at the Facebar in Reading, but a lack of funds and an unfortunate incident (aka, murder) resulted in the venue’s premature closure. This did not discourage As Cities Burn from performing that night, but it did move the show to a very, very bizarre location. From the bustling city of Reading, the show was relocated to Basingstoke. If you are cocking your head to the side and asking “where?” then you are not alone. I lived fifteen minutes from Reading and had never heard of its low-key neighbour. Moreover, the show was to be held at the Bang Bar, a hole-in-the-wall pub located next to a hair salon and a pet store. It didn’t exactly scream “Epic Rock Show.” But in the end, this was all for the best. The venue was the size of the average British living room (verging on uncomfortably small) and featured literally nothing but a bar for drinks and an area of floor designated for the bands to play on. Standing at the very back wall, I could still count the hairs on each frontman’s beard. Considering just how big a deal the reunion of As Cities Burn was, and the fact that they were touring the UK for the first time of their career (due to popular demand, no less), I suspected that the tiny pub would soon be overflowing with people just waiting to drench me in their sweat and repeatedly knock my beer to the floor, and yet there was almost no one there. When As Cities Burn took the stage, I counted: there were 46 people in attendance, and almost a third of them were members of the four opening bands. This left me with some very mixed emotions. On the one hand, I wanted As Cities Burn to get the showing they deserved; a real roaring crowd showing their appreciation for a band that died too young, and yet part of me was secretly hoping that the band would end up playing a de facto private show for me and Casey. Reality fell somewhere in between, with a low enough headcount for the show to be lathered in intimacy, but with fans that were dedicated and frenzied for the return of a great band.
The openers were what you would expect for a small no-name pub in Basingstoke. They weren’t bad, but they were hardly visionaries. The first act, You Win Again Gravity, had some interesting moments of innovation, but they sounded a bit too fresh, as if they had just finished writing their songs the week prior. The second group, Housefires, lacked the complexity of the first band, but boy did they ever make up for it in energy. Tiny pub or not, the frontman of that band was going to own the shit out of the “stage.” He jumped around like a suicidal jackrabbit and drew the ire of the pub’s management when he climbed a nearby gambling machine to deliver some epic screamed vocals. The showmanship was greatly appreciated, and it managed to get the small and seemingly sleepy crowd more engaged (sometimes whether they wanted to be or not). As Housefires left the stage, Casey and I left to interview the boys from As Cities Burn, so I’m afraid I will leave the sets of the remaining two openers, Violet and The Elijah, up to your imaginations (they probably sounded like dragons making scrambled eggs from boulders, but way less awesome). When we returned, it was down to business.
As Cities Burn hit the stage with power and finesse. They opened with ‘This Is It, This Is It,’ and it was immediately clear that this band was a finely tuned machine. They were incredibly tight, and every member (including makeshift bassist, Stephen Keech from Haste The Day) nailed their parts without flaw. They did not sound like a band that had taken a break of almost three years from performing together, they sounded like an energetic and organic entity of musical talent. Cohesion doesn’t even begin to describe the way each member fed off of and gave back to each other.
Their set drew entirely from Come Now Sleep and Hell Or High Water, leaving out Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest in its entirety. While this may have gotten under the skin of some, I for one was happy to see the band play what they enjoyed rather than what they felt obligated to provide. From the first song to the last, it was obvious that they were having a good time, and as each song claimed the spotlight from the one that preceded it, it was abundantly clear that As Cities Burn was in their element – that this hybrid of ambience, indie and post-hardcore is what they did (and still do) best. In fact, what was remarkable was how different many of their lighter songs sounded when tinted by the ferocity of their live sound, and when mixed in amidst some of their heavier tunes. Songs like ‘Petty’ and ‘Capo’ became whole new animals when belted out by an invigorated Cody Bonnette. Perhaps the most shocking song of all was ‘Capo,’ which took on an entirely different tone live. On the album it almost sounds like a dance track, with groovy distorted bass lines and playful backup vocals, but live it was a testament to As Cities Burn’s mastery of dynamics. The softs became melodic whispers, the louds became vibrant attacks, and Chris Lott’s chorus of “I’ve got nothing to say to you” became a deafening chant as the tiny room filled with the raised voices of band members and fans alike. And yet, the song was able to retain its bouncy feel the whole way through. It was an excellent example of As Cities Burn’s ability to break and bend genres, resulting in interesting and compelling music.
‘Capo’ was not the only song that brought the crowd on board as additional band members. ‘84’ Sheepdog’ and the closer, ‘Pirate Blues,’ saw members of the crowd take to the mic to help out the vocals. Watching the boys rock their guitars while rabid fans screamed “they fixed your brain when you were young” will go down in my memory as one of the coolest musical experiences of my life. It was a real union between crowd and band – the kind of thing that is only possible in a venue as intimate as the Bang Bar. If there had been a barricade or security guards, that simply wouldn’t have happened, but with fan and musician only separated by a few inches, a palpable connection was created and maintained until it simply overflowed. THAT is what music is all about.
Almost as impressive as the show itself was how the band handled itself with humility and appreciation afterwards. Many bands with three albums under their belts would have been disappointed by a turnout of under fifty people, but Cody and his crew genuinely thanked the crowd and proceeded to hang around and chat to those that approached them afterwards. Every member of the band was beaming with joy as Cody explained that they were living a dream of theirs, that they never thought they would make it to the UK. Again, this may have owed quite a bit to the fact that they didn’t have a backstage to run off to and that they didn’t have a crew of technicians to set up or take down their equipment, but whatever the reason, they came across as humble and friendly people who could not have been further away from taking their fans for granted. It reminded me of watching untold numbers of small-time bands in my hometown of Toronto as they performed for the love of music and simply joined the crowd afterwards to have a beer, except that this wasn’t a small-time band at all, this was a band that was brought out of retirement by the continued interest of a large and powerful fan base after almost three years on the shelf.
It was a strange night. There’s no doubt about it. But it was also an incredible one that is not likely to be forgotten by any person in attendance. I hope that As Cities Burn went on to get the reception they deserved at other UK stops, but I must confess that I am happy we got to share in such a special night with such an amazing band. They certainly haven’t lost anything over the years. If anything, they have gotten stronger. Here’s hoping these shows rekindle their love of playing together and we get some new music out of it.
This Is It, This Is It
Made Too Pretty
Our World is Grey