The 1975 are an unusual band indeed, much in part due to its outlandish frontman Matt Healy, the millennial iteration of a classic 70s rockstar. While one can certainly gather this peculiarity from their music videos and interviews, experiencing the band live among a crowd of screeching, and surprisingly attentive, fans is the best way for the uninitiated to learn who The 1975 is.
On a Saturday night in a sold-out Cal Coast Credit Union Open Air Theater (a venue desperately crying for a rebranding), American fans of the band gathered for what was, likely for most of them, their first real-life encounter with The 1975. Although their self-titled debut album gained a significant domestic following, it was not until this year’s release of their chart-topping, mouthful-of-a-project “I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it” that they reached their current level of fame.
Following the performance of an odd and uninspired choice for an opener, female New Jersey rapper 070 Shake, fans chattered noisily among themselves. Unbeknownst to them, however, an auditory countdown had commenced. A single note, as quiet as the ring in a hospital lobby, was literally and figuratively playing over everyone’s heads. Over the course of 10 or so minutes, as the lights dimmed gradually and the note grew louder, to the point at which the crowd could no longer neglect it, everyone in the audience directed their attention toward the stage, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their favorite British import. All of a sudden, hundreds of fans yelled, pointing out the six dark silhouettes descending from the guest house into the back of the stage.
Then came the crescendo of “The 1975” — the opening track to both of the band’s albums — through which the six silhouettes mounted the stage and morphed into six men. The pleasantly grating riff of their biggest single of the year “Love Me” came over the speakers and their signature pink neon lights flashed across the arena, revealing a pleasing aesthetic of both the set and the dress of the band members. A floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall digital screen in the background; three neon rectangles hanging from the ceiling; four computerized walls in the back alternating with the anonymous keyboard player, the already imposing drummer George Daniel on an elevated platform and the memorable saxophonist John Waugh; bassist Ross MacDonald, in a casual black shirt and blue jeans, and guitarist Adam Hann, wearing a slightly oversized beige blazer and trouser piece, each stood on either side of downstage with their own keyboard and trinkets to play with; and of course Matty in the center wearing a navy blue v-neck sweater over skin-tight, red plaid golfing pants — a much more accessible style than his black leather pants complementing his shirtless, gaudily tattooed torso.
Contrary to how the band appeared on Saturday Night Live and Coachella — at which Matty externalized the whining eye-rolling, attention-hungry teenager within him — it was a much more subdued concert than expected. Song after song, the band just kept playing; yes, drunk-and-high Matty occasionally climbed the speakers or slowly dribbled down to his knees, playing dead as well as a tail-wagging dog, but it felt more natural — like set dressing, not show stealing.
Highlights throughout the night included the soft and singable “Change of Heart,” as well as “She’s American,” which played especially well with this audience. The most compelling song of the night, though, was their title track “I like it when you sleep [and so on].” For this, John, Ross and Matty lined up in parallel diagonal lines and hunched over their keyboards, resembling a trio of techno musketeers. As they produced the song’s ambience through the graze of their fingertips, they gently bobbed up and down in sync while the neon lights behind them changed back and forth between different patterns of black and white, fixing themselves to the song’s only lyrics: “Matty, Matty, black and white,” which strangely were cut out. Then, Matty abandoned his keyboard and strutted around directing his co-members as if he was imagining himself conducting an electronic symphony — taking the appearance of an artist hard at work.
Another notable moment, one of the few times the band stopped for chatter, had Matty get political on his youthful, susceptible crowd. Describing Brexit, he stated that the youth of Britain remained too passive and entrusted the fate of their country to their elder generations, only to see them put the nation “in a completely screwed up situation,” as Matty called it. At first, it felt jarring to hear this as the first unsung words of the night, but as he went on to compare Britain’s situation to a similarly destiny-shaping choice in the U.S., the diatribe felt more fitting and closer to home. As he called on his fans to uphold “the liberal values of tolerance, social responsibility and love” he exclaimed to his unwavering fans, “Fuck Trump!” and “Loving someone / Yea, you should be loving someone” subsequently blasted over the speakers — a perfectly timed segue if there ever was one.
Later, fans must have felt conflicted with the fact that “Sex” had been played as the closer rather than the encore, depriving them of the opportunity to deliver their signature chant, “We want sex!” Instead, the band returned to the stage with atheist-gospel track “If I Believe You,” as well as a popular single from each of their albums: “Chocolate” and, finally, “The Sound.” During the latter, Matty created a special moment when he encouraged everyone to jump along; one can only wish there were more moments as unifying throughout the concert.
With such a lengthy, taxing setlist — 22 songs, to be precise — it was odd that they chose to jettison “Robbers,” a bona fide fan favorite, especially when older tracks, such as “Milk” and “Undo,” made the cut. In spite of this, the band showed their American fans why they should continue buying their albums, attending their concerts and listening to their music. With a provocative balance of self-indulgence and audience-pleasing, The 1975 proved they will live beyond 2016.
Date: October 15, 2016
Location: CalCoast Credit Union Open Air Theatre
Photo by Markus Hillgärtner