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Frightened Rabbit at Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia, PA: A Review by Guest Blogger Jonathan Andrew

January 19, 2009
Frightened Rabbit by Gabriel Kuo

Frightened Rabbit by Gabriel Kuo

Frightened Rabbit at Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia, PA: 1/16/09

I discovered the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit when my cousin Grant, a Glasgow resident, sent a copy of their first album, Sing The Greys, home with my father as a gift to me after a recent visit. I thought the CD was fair, particularly the title track and “Yawns,” but I was not overly impressed. After coming across several rave reviews online, I decided to pick up the band’s follow-up, The Midnight Organ Fight. That the record was produced by Peter Katis—the gentleman who manned the boards for the two most recent records by The National, my favorite contemporary band—was another vote in its favor. I was curious as to how he would apply his exacting yet organic style to the rough-hewn Frightened Rabbit. I was not disappointed. Beginning with brilliant opener “The Modern Leper,” the record was a huge step up from the debut. Over the course of several months of near-compulsive listening, it emerged as my favorite record of 2008.

I have long believed that in order to truly “get” a band, you need to see them live as well as listen to their records. Somewhere between the live performance and the studio sound lies the essence of the band. If a band can both produce a great record and succeed in a live context, they are truly exceptional.

Having already established a strong relationship with Frightened Rabbit’s recorded output, I wanted to see how they measured up live. As such, I bought a pair of tickets to the band’s January 16 performance at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia. A small venue, Johnny Brenda’s is comparable in size and sound to the better-known Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. If you can squeeze into the area in front of the stage prior to the set, you are guaranteed an intimate experience. Arriving about an hour before the time I guessed Frightened Rabbit would hit the stage, my buddy Aaron and I grabbed a few locally brewed beers and found a prime spot near the center of the floor and waited for the Rabbit to emerge.

After an underwhelming opening act whose name I did not catch, the Scottish foursome took the stage, offered a few friendly waves, and picked up their instruments. Opening the set as they do the sophomore record with stand-out “The Modern Leper,” the barrage began.

With a much more raw approach than their recorded work would suggest, frontman Scott Hutchison howled his paens to broken relationships with reckless abandon, often pulling very far off the mic, yet still audible due to his impassioned cries. His confident rhythm guitar, often played at an impressive speed, powered the band’s groove. Despite Scott’s amazing energy and charisma, his brother, drummer Grant Hutchison, nearly stole the show. Grant’s powerful pounding, innovative beats, and incredible energy drove each song in the set. The other two Rabbits, Billy Kennedy and Andy Monaghan, traded off on guitar, synthesizer, and bass, supplying supporting textures and other key musical elements.

As the band does not include a dedicated bass player, many of the songs were performed without bass. At times, this resulted in a thinner than ideal sound, but on tunes like the countrified “Old Old Fashioned” and the almost danceable “Head Rolls Off,” the absence of low end was negligible. Grant compensated nicely on these numbers with his kick- and floor tom-heavy beats. In addition, both Grant and Billy are capable vocalists who produced an excellent range of backing vocals. The band’s strong vocal talent helped them overcome the lack of bass, as Grant and Billy’s vocal counterpoints filled out the sound throughout the set, including an awesome three-part wordless vocal in conjunction with Scott to close “Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms” which was one of the highlights of the set.

Having run through the vast majority of the tunes from The Midnight Organ Fight, the band dove into the title track of their debut. “The Greys” was performed with a very different feel, including a totally new beat from Grant. After this, they launched into a furious rendition of first-album standout “Square 9.” At its conclusion, the band members left the stage one at a time—Andy, then Billy, then Scott—until only Grant remained, pounding out a furious beat. He played on for several bars, speeding up to a climactic finish. After his final cymbal smash, he rose and glared out at the crowd with a palpable intensity before exiting stage left.

The crowd, many of whom were singing along throughout the set, were not satisfied with this action-packed 60-minute performance. We clapped, stomped, and hollered until Scott emerged sporting an acoustic guitar. He walked out to the lip of the stage, in front of the microphone and vocal monitors, and began finger-picking the intro to “Poke.” Many of the crowd, myself included, took a few steps forward as he began to sing and listened at rapt attention as he performed the song without the aid of the PA. The rest of band then rejoined their leader as he informed us that, since this was a night of firsts—including, I believe, their first headlining performance in Philly—they were going to play one of the first songs they ever played together. They launched into Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Song Against Sex,” and the crowd sang along to each drawn-out verse-ending hook. They closed the encore—and the show—with a cathartic version of Midnight Organ Fight centerpiece “Keep Yourself Warm.” After this, the house music came on, followed by the house lights, indicating that the show was over.

As I walked out of the venue, ears ringing and shirt sweaty, I reflected upon the performance I had just witnessed. Although unable to adequately reproduce the lush sound of The Midnight Organ Fight—which includes richly layered guitar, keyboard, and percussion arrangements that would require many more than four musicians to execute—Frightened Rabbit still managed to effectively put across each and every song they performed. Their energy, confidence, and impressive vocal and instrumental talent added up to a truly brilliant performance. Onstage as well as on record, Frightened Rabbit is the real deal.

Jonathan Andrew

Set List

1. The Modern Leper
2. Fast Blood
3. Old Old Fashioned
4. I Feel Better
5. Good Arms Vs. Bad Arms
6. The Twist
7. My Backwards Walk
8. Head Rolls Off
9. Floating in the Forth
10. The Greys
11. Square 9

12. Poke (solo acoustic)
13. Song Against Sex (Neutral Milk Hotel cover)
14. Keep Yourself Warm

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2009 11:53 am

    nice article. i just interviewed them before the NYC show. check it out here:

    http://www.halfcute.com/2009/01/q-with-frightened-rabbit-breaking-and.html

    The band talks about what it’s like to be totally broke despite selling out large venues.

  2. Jason permalink
    January 20, 2009 7:11 pm

    Man I am so upset I missed the show. I had been planning to go for weeks but never got tickets and was shocked when I found they were sold out! Thanks for the update I was dying to see what they played and it seems they played everything that I wanted to hear. How was floating in the forth seems like a tough song to pull off live.

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