It may be hard to remember as the live music industry returns to something recognizably “normal”, but not too long ago the COVID-19 shutdown had fans wondering. wondering if a vaccine might ever arrive to allow shows to be staged again. in the crowded, sweaty spaces that are the lifeblood of a vital music scene.
When all of that was in doubt—and the survival of shuttered indie venues in Philadelphia and elsewhere far from a certainty—I focused on a few cathartic nights that reminded me how much a band’s life on fire in the perfect place and time can be rewarding. be.
I couldn’t help wondering: will I ever be able to do this again?
A particularly bright memory: Fontaines DC at Johnny Brenda’s in September 2019. The Irish quintet is named after Johnny Fontaine, the singer modeled by Frank Sinatra in The Godfatherand the city of Dublin, their place of origin.
The band led by talented literary writer Grian Chatten were on tour for their captivating debut album. Dogreland have proven to be masters at turning tense, post-punk songs of focused intensity into vehicles of emotional release.
It was a glorious evening made more memorable by meeting Fontaines fans who had made the perfectly reasonable decision to fly in from London to see the band in venues much smaller than they were already playing in the UK.
And that was also the last conversation I had with Tom Sheehy, the music historian and publicist from Philadelphia who passed away in 2020. He said to me, “I haven’t been so excited about a young band like this one from The Clash.
So let’s just say I had April 22 circled in red. Friday wasn’t just the release date for the Fountains’ third album, Lean fia. The band also had not one, but two sold-out shows in Philadelphia to celebrate the release.
First, a bright, early show from Free at Noon at World Cafe Live, also airing on WXPN-FM (88.5) and streaming live on xpn.org. It was superb, although somewhat toned down by the band’s standards. It was followed by a nightly show at Underground Arts which was just as explosive as I could have hoped.
Not that this new Fontaines experience recreated the one I remembered so well. Trying to recapture the thrill that comes with discovering great art is a wild pursuit. It’s never so surprising the second time around.
But that’s not a bad thing. The world has changed a lot since fall 2019, and so have the DC Fountains. In 2020, the band expanded their blunt sound on their second album, The death of a hero.
They opened with the title of this album cut to Underground Arts. It’s the one in which Chatten uses a spoken-song performance to deliver a stripped-down message of optimism (“Life isn’t always empty”) and some life guidance advice: “If you find yourself in a family , give the child more than you’ve had in your day. And when you speak, speak sincerely, and believe me my friend, everyone will hear.
The growth evident on The death of a hero is more pronounced on Lean fia. The title of the new album comes from a Gaelic phrase that is used as a substitute swear word and literally translates to “deer damnation”.
The tracks are more varied and confident in their musicality. The Smiths-y’s “Jackie Down The Line” has a sinister protagonist, but it’s the band’s catchiest pop song. At Underground Arts, “Nabakov” and “I Love You” played moody grooves rather than shouted to the sky.
And the most important has to do with geography. Most Fontaines members now live in London. It does not Lean fia no less an Irish record. James Joyce, after all, wrote Ulysses in Zurich, Trieste and Paris, and Chatten’s reflection on his Irish identity – which he reflects on in “Bloomsday” – is only deepened by being an expat.
All of this perspective and experience informs both the band’s new album and their two performances in Philadelphia on Friday.
The band’s evolution was apparent at Free at Noon. Taking the stage with the collective headboard after an opening tour in Washington the night before, the short set was very captivating, emphasizing subtlety. The band didn’t go toe to toe like I remembered they did at Johnny Brenda’s, and a few times Chatten seemed to be literally trying to wake up.
In the evening, the group was in its element. It was an altogether more electrifying affair, a 70-minute set energized from the start. The crowd — almost entirely maskless the day after the city’s new mandate was overturned — immediately came to life in the underground space at the first sound of drummer Tom Coll’s hard thumps.
Chatten was a live wire, stalking the stage, standing on monitors and raising his fist to “Big” as he trumpeted the ambitions expressed for the first time on Dogrel. “Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a Catholic spirit,” he sang, and repeated a promise that is now starting to come true. “My childhood was small, but I’m going to be big!”
The evening ended abruptly without an encore. (Perhaps because Chatten had vocal issues: The band canceled a show at Asbury Park on Saturday “because Grian lost his voice.”) But when the set ended, the fans didn’t immediately leave. They first chanted “Go, go, go!” like a European football crowd, then lingered for a moment, as if not yet ready for such a night to fade from memory.