live review... American Football
In the middle of Bristol there’s a little venue called The Lanes. It’s a hostel, club and bowling alley, and it’s great. The bowling lanes are all retro, there are pool and foosball tables upstairs, they put on local bands and have fairly priced dark beer that gives you a wicked hangover. They might have kicked me out once because I drunkenly tried to get my shoes back myself, but I still love the place. In the middle of the O2 there’s a less little venue called The Brooklyn Bowl. To get there you have to walk past a Nandos, Pizza Express, GBK, Five Guys and countless other McDonalds in a Top Shop suit eateries. All the pints are £5, all the lanes are loud and distracting, and some guy ordered fried calamari at the bar. I don’t love this place, although I did think it was funny when it went beyond parody and Fugazi started playing over the speakers.
It was especially odd considering the band I was there to see, American Football, released one independent album in 1999 and played a handful of basement shows before breaking up for 15 years. Their self-titled album is a stalwart of the ‘emo’ genre, has been referenced countless times by the bands that followed, and is a sonic bible for emotionally repressed men who can’t say what they feel about things (see all men).
When the band was setting up I wasn’t the keenest I’d ever been for a gig, despite this being a band I never thought I’d get the chance to see live. I’d been annoyed by the venue, the support band were called Woman’s Hour but had four white guys in, and I wanted to find calamari guy and pour my £5 Fosters on his squid. All my pretentious indignation disappeared however as soon as I heard Mike Kinsella play a few notes with that guitar tone.
If you know the album then you know what I mean. It’s so delicate and rich. It’s a gentle guiding hand through the incredibly intricate and melodic story American Football tell. It’s a safe, comforting sound, something that reassures you and tells you that shit’s okay. As soon as the band got into the opener of the instrumental Five Silent Miles all my angst about the experience was just washed away by a combination of their sheer talent and my brain going, “holy shit, that’s American Football”.
The technical ability of the band is ridiculous. Mike Kinsella and Steve Holmes’ guitar playing is remarkable; reeling of rapid, complex arpeggios that somehow still create a slow and brooding atmosphere. They move back and forth, bouncing delicate riffs off each other and taking each song through wandering and unexpected turns. They’re able to have this freedom because of the truly monstrous effort put in by the rhythm section. American Football have been deemed math rock, a genre centred around drumming and frequent time changes, and Steve Lamos’ clinic on drums opitimised this. He is relentless and incredibly technical, driving the band with his power and speed on the sixteenths, yet never missing a beat on a series of complicated fills and syncopated rhythms. Just to hammer home his talent he also fills in on trumpet when required.
Throughout the set you hear little ‘ah’s’ from the crowd after every song, like when a band with a big back catalogue dig out a brilliant album track that you’d forgotten about. Particular highlights include a mid-set rally of I'll See You When We're Both Not So Emotional, You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon and But the Regrets Are Killing Me, with Kinsella’s soft and confessional vocal delivery really shining through. The encore comprises of what are American Football’s closest approximation to singalong singles, The Summer Ends and Never Meant. These are accompanied by big crowd participation and those guy hugs men do at gigs. You know the type; arms around shoulders and singing along together, we’ve all done it.
With that the band take their leave and everyone heads off in to the night to ignore their emotions again. American Football is a special band and they look like they’re really enjoying being back. The music doesn’t demand much energy on stage, but it does demand to be fully immersed in; and the band does just that. They close their eyes and sway with the beat, smiling as they break into familiar songs that went so long unplayed. Their having fun made the whole experience more enjoyable and any trepidation I had before the set was completely replaced with joy.
Hell, I would have even hugged calamari guy if I’d seen him.