High & Low: Thoughts On Brand New’s First Live Set Since Science Fiction

You ever go to a bad music festival? Not an outright Fyre Festival or Woodstock ’99 disaster that merits a post-mortem from dozens of people who didn’t even attend. I mean the kind that feels more like an awkward house party, where the hosts and attendees start to get the sense a quarter of the way through that…wow, this is really how many people are gonna show up. And in turn, that pervasive, all-consuming dread that we’re all in this together and it’s…lame? And what does this say about us? This was the inaugural High & Low Festival for at least the first eight hours or so.

Sponsored by KROQ, High & Low offered a solid lineup of profoundly irritating pop acts that still somehow get a ton of spins on rock radio and almost no press coverage (Bad Suns, Andrew McMahon & The Wilderness), rock bands that could be ostensibly be huge with some of that airtime (Citizen, PUP), a handful of early and late-2k10 indie favorites (Charly Bliss, (Sandy) Alex G, Cloud Nothings), and capped off by Tegan And Sara, Death Cab For Cutie and Brand New, who fall somewhere in the middle. A nice playlist, but in no way capable of competing with what was happening about an hour north and south on the same day — the weekend-long Day N Night Festival in Anaheim booked just about every important rapper under the sun, while Ohana Festival featured Eddie Vedder, Social Distortion, Jack Johnson, Fiona Apple, and HAIM. High & Low wasn’t a destination event either, held at San Bernardino’s NOS Events Center, which has the charm of an abandoned Circuit City — the main stage was set up on shadeless asphalt in 90-degree weather, and there was an indoor stage with air conditioning but the ambience of an airplane hangar; not once did it look even half-filled.

But once again, remember the difference between being a festival-goer and a critical, narrative-seeker: This could be seen as a pretty damning referendum on the state of the festival industry, particularly those that focus on rock music. Or it could be seen as the first Brand New show since the release of Science Fiction with Death Cab For Cutie, Tegan And Sara, Cloud Nothings, PUP, (Sandy) Alex G and Charly Bliss as openers, which is pretty fucking awesome for $79.

I have very little doubt that Brand New’s fanbase has major overlap with those of Death Cab and Tegan And Sara, mostly because I can just look at my own iTunes for confirmation. I also realize that Brand New may not actually be that much bigger of a draw than their fellow topliners from a statistical standpoint — while Science Fiction debuted at #1 in August, it did so in a historically soft sales week, its first-week numbers not altogether outstripping those of Heartthrob or even Kintsugi. But have you met Brand New fans? We’re fucking insane. This was a Brand New crowd, not a festival crowd, their presence overtaking everyone else like Red Sox or Packers fans at an away game. Brand New haven’t done any press in the past eight years, but their reputation has increased exponentially in the time since as nearly everyone with a meaningful relationship with their music has become a de facto street teamer. I stopped counting the different variants of Brand New T-shirts after a dozen and it could’ve easily reached 25 — some were definitely homemade.

While I had the sense that The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me had taken on a legendary status in the past decade and I’ve seen the volcanic reaction that playing anything from their first two albums could get at any Emo Night, none of that really sunk in until I saw them at Coachella in 2015. That shouldn’t have been a Brand New crowd either — no one is going to spend several hundred dollars just to see them do a 45-minute set amongst thousands who are otherwise waiting for Drake or Jack White or the Weeknd. And yet, it was one of the most transcendent I’ve ever witnessed in my life; everyone within 50 yards of the stage knew every word and wanted everyone in their vicinity to know how much they knew every word. Every song gave license for people to lose their shit. Certainly, these people were there to see some other bands, but none were more important than Brand New.

But here’s a dirty little secret that Brand New fans have likely kept to themselves over the past few years: They can really half-ass it if you catch them on the wrong night. A few days after their Coachella performance, they played the Shrine in Los Angeles; it should’ve been even more transcendent, since they fulfilled a lifelong dream of playing with Built To Spill (not to mention Desaparecidos were the first opener). It was a fucking bummer; maybe it was due to the poor layout of the Shrine that offered no sightlines beyond 10 feet from the stage or just exhaustion, but they seemed gassed, or at least disengaged. This seemed to be the exception rather than the rule going forward. Didn’t matter if it came from people who still got them confused with Taking Back Sunday or lifelong fans — at Primavera, or on their co-headlining tour with Modest Mouse, Brand New just didn’t seem to have their hearts in anything that didn’t involve LP5 anymore, and even that was up for debate. And now that the record’s out, how stoked would would Brand New be to play these songs for the first time at a sparsely attended festival in San Bernardino?

Then again, Brand New is one of the most counterintuitive rock acts in existence, and maybe they’re pretty stoked that they could break the NDA they’ve had over the past eight years with Science Fiction — note that not a single second of it was previewed live. “Lit Me Up” is just as unsettling opening their set at High & Low as it was opening Science Fiction; there are definitely people who can recite the introductory tape recording from memory. Meanwhile, the giant light display whose servicing caused a 20-minute delay for their 10 PM set time — it was in front of Brand New, not behind them. The band performed “Lit Me Up” in total darkness, until the screen engulfed them in slowly rising flames, like an iTunes visualizer. So, really…BRAND NEW PLAYING BEHIND A CAGE!!! Another layer of distance! What’s more Brand New than that?

Turns out it wasn’t like Brand New at all, because this light display increased the visual excitement 50000% and turned a normal set of theirs into a preview of Brand New leaning into their new arena rock status. One of the most inconceivable aspects of Science Fiction is how it managed a critical consensus while recalling a host of highly unfashionable ’90s rock titans — I’ve heard plenty of comparisons to Pearl Jam, Automatic For The People-era R.E.M., Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots — bands who took themselves incredibly seriously and yet knew how to work a crowd of thousands.

Brand New haven’t lightened up — Jesse Lacey offered maybe two total lines of stage banter throughout the entire 90-minute set: “We’re Brand New, from New York” and “How’s everybody doing?” Nor were there many surprises or rarities; immediately after “Lit Me Up,” Brand New played their usual opener (“Gasoline”) and a total two songs that preceded The Devil And God; fortunately, Lacey didn’t sound as exhausted or nonchalant doing the verses of “Sic Transit Gloria…” as he’s been in the past. Eight songs from Science Fiction made the setlist, and they’re the ones you’d expect (i.e., no “Batter Up” or “Could Never Be Heaven”).

But as James Rettig pointed out here, even if Science Fiction isn’t a fun record, it’s packed beyond capacity with crowd-pleasing moments. Not only did their light show align perfectly with their more explosive numbers (“You Won’t Know” burst into blinding static, “137” is just as apocalyptic as it promises), it was interactive — Brand New were revealed as it raised for the first time during the hotshot wah-wah solo of “Out of Mana,” and it was lowered once again during the second half of “Same Logic/Teeth.” The same could be said for most of Brand New’s set. I mean, there isn’t a single positive thought to be had in “Sowing Season” or “Jesus,” and “Sic Transit Gloria…” presents losing one’s virginity as a traumatizing hazing ritual. And yet, the catharsis shared by the significant Inside SoCal-looking contingent singing right along with the indie kids and the kids in Circa Survive T-shirts and the kids with Blink-182 T-shirts is second to none (and let it be said, this crowd was kids, or at least looked like the average age was 22. Alcohol sales must’ve tanked).

More importantly, it’s clear Brand New put as much effort into reproducing Science Fiction in a live setting as they did making it. When I’ve seen them in the past, there was typically a percussionist thrown in, maybe a third guitarist on songs like “Sowing Season (Yeah).” Brand New were a sextet for the entirety of the set, including Kevin Devine on guitar and backup vocals. The frequent collaborator and Procrastinate! Music Traitors recording artist certainly earned his keep by guiding Lacey back to the correct lyric when he flubbed a line on “Can’t Get It Out” (the “not just a manic depressive” one! The most important one!). And then they padded out to seven for Science Fiction’s more expansive songs; Brand New are a band that needs a guy who can play a mandolin now.

Brand New as an arena rock band is such an enticing proposition that, much like Science Fiction, you almost hope against hope that their supposed 2018 retirement is just another one of their antagonistic “will they or won’t they” audience trolls? — who else combines this level of popularity with this level of feverish fan commitment? Before Brand New took the stage, the PA blasted “North American Scum,” “Mountains Beyond Mountains (Sprawl II),” and “Burn the Witch” consecutively, and if Brand New fans had it their way, those would be the acts they were consistently likened to in 2017. But after Lacey completed a one-song, solo encore of “Soco Amaretto Lime,” I left the front of the audience, saw those vast stretches of asphalt, and was reminded of how this was High & Low, not Coachella, not Governors Ball, not one of the major festivals that Radiohead or Arcade Fire headline and fill to capacity. It’s just as well: Maybe Brand New aren’t arena rock or festival rock, just the biggest cult band in the world.

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