M83, Express Live, Columbus, Ohio, June 3, 2016
The first time I saw M83 was at Lollapalooza 2012 with a few tens of thousands of my new friends.
The live incarnation of Anthony Gonzalez’s sprawling synthpop was in a prime slot that year, leading into first-night headliner The Black Keys on the south field of Chicago’s Grant park. At the moment, it seemed like a bit of prescient booking. The fervor over M83’s commercial breakthrough Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. had gone on unabated for almost a full year.
So this experience was a sheer sea of humanity and upraised phones, complete with a light show futilely trying to compete with a still-setting sun. The density of the crowd at times neared a frightening level that could trigger low-level agoraphobia.
And yet, it was still a pretty great show, bolstered by a deliriously bouncing crowd, sure, but easily enough to let me know I needed to see this band in a more intimate setting. (Pro-tip: This is what you should be aiming for with a festival set. It’s a taste test.)
Four years and a new album (2016’s Junk) later, I got an opportunity for that more intimate setting, thanks in part to a couple of nearby festivals. The band’s recent stint at the mid-size Express Live in Columbus was shockingly not sold-out, almost certainly due to the pull of two larger festivals in the region (Nelsonville and Bunbury).
This healthy-but-not-capacity crowd made it possible to snag some prime real estate on the floor and blessedly allowed room to move, which came in handy when Gonzalez and company took the stage (and rather early).
The band opened large and with signature lushness with the gorgeous “Reunion” from Hurry Up — and that album would be very well represented in the night’s set. The first line of the night was a prophesy. You came out of nowhere/ Stealing my heart and brain.
Out of the gate, the tone was magical. From a twirling light show backing that was wowing without overpowering to a band that seemed to share a wavelength that they would slowly welcome the audience into, this is one of those shows that makes you fall in love with live music.
And mind you, this is in genre of music that doesn’t always successfully transfer to the stage. With his current live contributors (lead guitarist Jordan Lawlor, drummer Loïc Maurin, keyboardist Kaela Sinclair and multi-instrumentalist Joe Berry) and the array of keys, triggers and instruments in front of him, Gonzalez was a joyous conductor for a joyous evening. These songs had so much life in the live setting, it’s hard to even listen to them on record afterward.
And this was probably most true of the selections played from the long-awaited follow-up to Hurry Up, 2016’s Junk. That new album feels more playful — and a cover with two wildly goofy Muppet-like puppets will set that tone — and less grand than its predecessor, and it’s still taking me a while to digest. I had some fears that some of these new songs would not be highlights — and you always have to forgive a band for wanting to play out the new stuff.
But with the evening’s second song, the goofy-bouncy “Do It, Try It” and the corny refrain of the title line, it became apparent that these songs would also excel with the live instrumentation. If that first line had me roll my eyes a bit on first listen, it was a call to action and an invitation. And the crowd was on-board with this.
The audience was in a rapturous mood as Gonzalez lead through a set heavy on the last two albums but with some great appearances from the earlier catalog — and these fans seemed knowledgeable of all it. A late-set highlight was the addition of French vocalist Mai Lan, who brought the same sultry coolness she contributed to multiple tracks on Junk to the Express Live stage.
Gonzalez was all eyes-closed passion and beaming smiles, and the infectiousness of this energy bounced from each member on stage to the crowd. What can be said of a night where even ripping guitar solos and, yes, even the most impassioned saxophone solo this side of “The Lost Boys” come off as sincere and beautiful moments rather than rock show tropes. It was borderline religious.
The energy level rarely waned, and even the uptick when the first chirpy strains of the synth line from the band’s smash “Midnight City” was only slightly noticeable (again, the benefit of audience that didn’t just seem to be there to hear a couple of hits). This is not to say that the place didn’t go nuts for the signature hit, just that it was already pretty nuts all evening.
A three-song encore, landing on “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” from 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us, wrapped up the set, an early finish for the venue (around 9:45) but with no complaints to be heard from what had just been seen.
A week later I found myself watch Gonzalez and Company presumably bringing that same joy to Bonnaroo, only this time streaming it live from the comfort of the couch, grateful for the more intimate experience i’d so recently had. (Brad Keefe)