Nada Surf at First Avenue, 3/31/12

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Photos by Erik Hess
Nada Surf
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, March 31, 2012

If you haven't heard much about Nada Surf since their breakout 1996 ode to teen angst "Popular" you're probably not alone. And that's a damn shame. Instead of living in the shadow of their MTV Buzz Clip "hit," Nada Surf relied on a strength they've always had in spades -- live performance.

Touring in support of their critically praised new album, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy, Nada Surf brought along two of the many friends featured on the album. Guitarist Doug Gillard (of Guided by Voices) and Martin Wenk (of Calexico) helped to flesh out the sound of the New York-based three-piece quite nicely. Roars of applause for Wenk's spirited trumpeting on "80 Windows" and Gillard's solid guitar work on several songs were well-earned, but even with the stellar pick-up members, it was frontman Matthew Caws' songwriting that stole the show.


The band started off strong, with the catchy "Clear Eye Clouded Mind" and hit their stride on "Whose Authority" just a few songs later. During "Authority," in particular, they sounded tight and in control, with bassist Daniel Lorca and drummer Ira Elliot deftly handling the rhythm. Lorca, in particular, looked right at home smoking cigarettes, occasionally pulling a brew out of an ice bucket at the base of his mic stand. "Thanks for bringing a late night feeling to an early show," said an enthusiastic Caws, who also showed appreciation for the fans that followed the band from their days playing the Entry to their headlining Mainroom gigs. Based on the Nada Surf T-shirts of varied vintage and the hundreds of fans singing along to every song, that may have represented a large number of those in attendance.

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It was these quiet sing-alongs, however, that brought the drawbacks of a well-sold show to light and it seemed like First Ave's formidable PA was quieter than usual. While this was a relief to folks that aren't regular earplug users, it allowed chatter from the more conversational folks at the back of the house to overwhelm the more poignant moments of the set. Some bright spots, like the almost-too-sweet singalong during "Weightless," saw the fans up front overpowering those in the back but the show lost a large amount of its emotional impact thanks to the constant din in the background. This was especially apparent during the late-set "Blonde on Blonde," which was all but lost in the crowd noise. In the end though, rock 'n' roll won out. The relentlessness of "Hi-Speed Soul" picked the pace up just in time for "See These Bones" to bring the set to a close.

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The swaying, crowd-wide two-step during "Inside of Love" and the hearty shouts of "FUCK IT! I wanna have a party!" during the chorus of finisher "Blankest Year" made for an immensely powerful encore. It was at once a display of Caws' ability to write pop songs that burrow deeply into the hearts of his fans as well as a demonstration of the staying power of Nada Surf's particular brand of rock 20 years on, even if "Popular" wasn't anywhere on the setlist.

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Critic's Notebook:

Personal Bias: Nada Surf was my first show at First Avenue back in Spring 2008, soon after I moved to Minnesota. It was my first time seeing them live and my first time in a space I've come to see as a second home so any gig they play there will have a certain glow about it.

The Crowd: A huge number of überfans mouthing the words to every song. Surprisingly, many of them at the 18+ show had the X-mark of minordom on their wrists. Their enthusiasm was insane, despite the fact that they were all born in or after 1992, the year that Nada Surf formed.

Overheard in the Crowd: It was pretty clear that most of the folks in the back quarter of the venue were content yell at each other loudly throughout the show, steamrolling over the more emotive moments and drawing a bit of ire from the too-polite fans around them. Why they bothered to buy a ticket and attended is up for debate.

Random Notebook Dump: Holy crap, this crowd loves them some trumpet. Also: I'm glad I got there early for An Horse, an Austrailian two-piece that played a strong set. While it was memorable, I'd love to see those guys play a more intimate room, as they were a bit distant on the big mainroom stage.

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Clear Eye Clouded Mind

Waiting for Something

Happy Kid

Whose Authority

What is Your Secret

Teenage Dreams


Killian's Red

Jules and Jim

Concrete Bed

80 Windows

When I Was Young

Yer Head

No Snow On The Mountain

Blonde On Blonde

Hi-Speed Soul

See These Bones


Inside of Love

Blankest Year

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Angie Jevnager
Angie Jevnager

Very kind and accurate account of the show, Erik. I was right in front of Daniel and saw you snapping pics so I have been anxious to see them! I have been going to their shows faithfully since about 2002 and they always deliver. My first time seeing them I was actually meeting a friend in the Ascot Room for Sondre Lerche and The Long Winters when this amazing band blew my socks off. Little did I know it was that band from the 90's who so briefly flew within radar. I met Matthew that night and Ira (who stopped talking to some other fans as I walked up saying, "Excuse me but this girl is CUTE!" Yes, I am bragging! :) Bottom line, it's been a love affair ever since. They are so amazing and you are right, a lot of people still do not know and that is a shame but I believe the more gradual the climb, the more sustained they will be at the top. My only complaints are that their songs sounded rushed (due to First Avenues time crunching for dance night) and so I could hear Matthew a bit out of time with the rest of the guys. He seemed to lose his footing a little. Also, not to nit-pick but his last name is Caws, no E. :x Cheers!

Erik Hess
Erik Hess

Whoops! I knew I'd flub some minor detail. Thanks for the heads up on the e-free last name.

Angie Jevnager
Angie Jevnager

We live, we flub. I usually am not one to sweat the small stuff but it would have driven me nuts. I wrote to Matthew about the curry "catchup" they serve at The Depot. Hah!

Angie Jevnager
Angie Jevnager

Flubs abound where I lay but it's the name thing, I guess. 

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