Back in the day, when it got overplayed on the radio, I hated ‘Somewhere Only We Know’. I still really do not like that song. Yet I know all the words, and when Tom Chaplin is singing them, I sing along. Why? Because I’m a Keane fan. There’s a part of me that hopes/wishes/prays that one of my greatest wishes, to sing alongside Chaplin onstage, will happen one day. The closest the band have ever gotten to my house was last Thursday night, when they played Strathmore Hall in the burbs of Maryland, in the city of Bethesda. I really could not have gotten any closer to them than I did at SXSW in March and still, eight rows back is really nothing to complain about. Especially when you consider the majesty of their shows.
To my happiness and relief, the show sold out within days of the gig. For sure, the show would have sold out much quicker if it hadn’t been for the mismatch in opener. Mystery Jets were tapped to accompany the East Sussex band on their North American campaign, and Mystery Jets are not anywhere as near as well known as they are back home. Having to explain to other concert-goers who they were and what they sounded like, coupled with seeing people sitting in their cars instead of heading into the venue early, seemed like such a waste to me. You’ve bought tickets with your hard-earned money: aren’t you at least curious to see what the opening band is like? So yes, it kind of upset me when I looked out in the crowd to see that there were far too few people sitting down for the first set.
Their loss: despite playing to only handfuls of Keane fans, both William Rees and Blaine Harrison’s voices sounded amazing and the instrumentation was loud enough yet just right for this hall that usually caters to symphonies and other classical events. The only exception was on ‘Young Love’, which many of you will remember as the first high-profile outing for a then unknown Laura Marling on Mystery Jets’ second album ‘Twenty-Two’; for some reason, the drums and bass were too heavy, drowning out Rees’ lead and Harrison’s backing vocals, making the whole affair sound like a mess.
Of the ‘Radlands’ heavy set, ‘Greatest Hits’ managed to bring English cheekiness to Maryland ‘burbs and their parting shot, ‘Luminescence’, while slow, was enchanting and allowed for a mellowness to pervade the entire hall. After signing some autographs and meeting fans near the merch table upstairs (including an incident involving yours truly becoming verklempt following having an audience with the band), the band left for another show – their own headline gig in Washington DC – and well, your faithful editor decided to stick it out for Keane, because I would have had to miss not only half of Keane’s set to make the other show, but I would have missed the bulk of the new material, which was eager to see live after the new songs had already been properly rehearsed and given to live audiences last month in the UK. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions.
I enjoy seeing Keane live primarily because of Tom Chaplin: he is the epitome of the consummate performer. Working his way back and forth across the stage, singing with his arms raised as if to touch the stars or at least fans in the upper reaches of a venue or fists pumped to indicate he’s in the zone, all of it must be incredibly tiring. But he does it, and he manages to include everyone in the audience, which is no mean feat when it comes to playing to large crowds. Mesmerising.
And while you’re watching this Chaplin spectacle, it’s almost a given that you will forget that Keane is a four-piece, anchored by the songwriting and keyboard talents of Tim Rice-Oxley, new-ish bass player Jesse Quin, and drummer Richard Hughes. Unlike the previous stage set-ups for the ‘Perfect Symmetry’ (very colourful) and ‘Night Train’ (cool illuminations) tours, the ‘Strangeland’ backdrop is pretty boring, looking too much like the Arizona state flag, except there is a circular neon sign announcing ‘Strangeland’ in the upper right hand corner. I am guessing it’s just so, as to not distract you from the music in an oohing, ahhing kind of way but still, understated and kind of disappointing.
And I suppose in hindsight, this works for a band like Keane, because you are waiting for the pomp and bombast from the band themselves and certainly in the strength of Chaplin’s voice. Sad but admittedly sappy ballads like ‘This is the Last Time’ (which brings me to tears nearly every time I hear it) and ‘We Might as Well Be Strangers’ flourish in this kind of environment, as to the newer and equally heartbreaking ‘Disconnected’: “We’ve been disconnected somehow / there’s an invisible wall between us now…” Oh god. If they could only see the tears I cry into my heart when I queue this song up. ‘Silenced by the Night’, another tearjerker, was chosen as the first single from ‘Strangeland’, and if the intention was to tug at the heartstrings, they’ve done it right. “Ohhhhhh…you and I, we’re gonna rise again…” Just epic.
But this is not to say that they don’t do upbeat and up tempo well. Nothing could be farther from the truth. ‘Sovereign Light Cafe’, revealed by Chaplin on this night to be his favourite among the songs of ‘Strangeland’, dazzled in its energy; it’s an actual cafe in Bexhill-on-Sea that will be inundated with Keane fans wanting photographed, if it hasn’t already been mobbed. So did ‘On the Road’, a driving number which serves as an optimistic pick me up to anyone who’s had a dream that seemed unreachable.
I think that’s one of many reasons I am a Keane fan; Rice-Oxley’s songwriting is unrivalled, he can write ballads that can make you cry just as equally well as those that can get you to raise your fists in a show of can do attitude. They have kept me company at some of my darkest moments, as if they understood and knew the pain I felt. Other times, they picked up me and dusted me off, only to encourage me to keep going, to remind me the sun would rise again tomorrow and I was really stronger than what I might have felt the day before. I sometimes worry that they won’t be playing much of ‘Perfect Symmetry’ in the future: they only played the title track (audience video below) and ‘Spiralling’ (which, admittedly, sounds laughable with all the combined “whoo!” provided by the audience), which leads me to believe that ‘experiment’ with synths is over and done with. Still though, if Rice-Oxley can keep this up and Chaplin continues as the charismatic frontman he’s always been, I can’t see anyone – not even Coldplay – ever matching their musical triumphs.
More and higher-res photos from this show can be viewed on my Flickr.
After the cut: set lists.
Mystery Jets Set List:
Lost in Austin
Keane Set List:
You Are Young
Day Will Come
Leaving So Soon?
The Starting Line
Bend and Break
We Might as Well Be Strangers
Nothing in My Way
Strangeland (snippet) into…
On the Road
This is the Last Time
Somewhere Only We Know
Is It Any Wonder?
Sovereign Light Cafe
Silenced by the Night