AS TALL AS LIONS FAREWELL SHOW – The Paradise, Boston, MA 12/20/10

by mikeflanagan1

Since I started college almost three years ago, I’ve watched my high school idols resort to breaking up to send me a much-needed reminder of their existence. Dozens of times, I’ve had to temporarily halt my Bon Iver, Mountain Goats, Bob Dylan, Built to Spill, Van Morrison, Band, (etc.) kicks for declared days of remembrance. It started when The Receiving End of Sirens, the band that almost literally monopolized my CD player (I didn’t get an iPod until 2008) from the summer before I started high school nearly exactly to the end, announced in March of my senior year that they would be playing their final shows that May, the last of which would be two weeks before my graduation.

In the two-and-a-half years since TREOS mounted the most tasteful and timely disbandment possible, many of their peers have overstayed their welcomes with their cultlike fanbases and moved out of their niches into more spacious dwellings. While bands like Circa Survive and The Dear Hunter have almost completely lost my trail with their respective third albums, As Tall As Lions’s 2009 record You Can’t Take It With You was just lukewarm enough to at least earn a spot in my back pocket. Compared to ATAL’s self-titled LP, You Can’t Take It With You is almost unmentionable; it’s an overlookable beauty spot on the face of a young but auspicious career. But in retrospect, its unconsciously haphazard core bodes the lamentable fate that would stalk this seemingly limitless ensemble in the months that would follow.

It’s not a knock on their performance when I say that As Tall As Lions appeared more than ready to break up on stage at The Paradise; it’s a testament to the air of finality that partially fogged the space in my mind that ATAL’s live show usually strikes with awe. The indissoluble rhythm section of bassist Julio Tavarez and drummer Cliff Sarcona ferried the rest of the band, as always, that, for the first time, lacked the superhuman chemistry that justified their visionary sound.

Dan Nigro, the band’s reputed vocal virtuoso, failed to deliver, or, more aptly, refrained from delivering, his usually entrancing tenor. Instead, he projected a generally restrained demeanor throughout most of the set; his voice was much less authoritative and his body language less engaging. Meanwhile, guitarist Sean Fitzgerald, ATAL’s resident master of tone, was neither momentous nor sluggish, and touring/studio keyboardist Rob Parr (for the life of me, I can’t figure out what he was never considered a member of the band…he’s in promo shots, he plays with them live and in the studio…but that’s neither here nor there) played along well enough. It would be wrong to call the performance blase; perhaps it would be better to say that ATAL’s set was merely significantly above average, when it normally annuls the standard altogether.

Still, even as Nigro hit his notes in perfect, albeit relatively diluted, concordance with his band, the distinctive frontman seemed luxated from Tavarez, Sarcona, and Fitzgerald in every intangible way. He dropped his guitar for several numbers and appeared uncomfortable and even further removed from the rest of the band with only a microphone in hand. Where Nigro’s commanding voice used to compete with the superb rhythm section, creating a resplendent tension that manifested itself in euphoric harmony, it attempted to bury itself underneath the drums and bass for the first part of the set.

Although the band mostly went through the motions by ATAL’s prime standards, they still dazzled the motions, and the entire band was back to its zenith by the last song before the first of two encores, As Tall As Lions opener and standout track “Stab City”. Nigro strapped his piece back on and belted the iconic line, “So don’t say you’ll seeeeeeeeee me…” just as adroitly as he did when ATAL won me over opening for TREOS in early ’06. Something shifted in the band’s attitude during this song; the improvised subtleties between the clairvoyant Tavarez and Sarcona resonated with the rest, and Fitgerald, Nigro, Parr, and even the auxiliary trumpeter they hired responded pertinently.

Immediately after the band walked off the stage, the crowd far exceeded the obligatory level of applause in exchange for an encore. It didn’t take long for Nigro to make it back onto the stage alone with just a guitar. After he tuned the guitar open, he decided it wouldn’t hold the tuning well and switched guitars. He ultimately decided to sing most of “Kickin’ Myself” a cappella, lightly popping on the pickups to keep time for the crowd to sing along. Nigro fed the momentum ATAL generated with “Stab City” with an astounding rendition of the only acoustic track off the self-titled.

The rest of the band returned to the stage to rend a comely version of “Maybe I’m Just Tired” that was as intimate as it was sacrosanct; the harmonies, again, were 2006-caliber and Nigro’s final unaccompanied vocal lines were succeeded by a decisive, heartrending instrumental movement. It was appropriate to end with a piece that showcased the band’s singularity; although Nigro’s voice is exquisite enough to flourish on its own, As Tall As Lions’s success always lived, and ultimately died, with the democratic concept of a band–a steadfast rhythm section, a cooperative platoon of majestic tones, and otherworldly vocal harmonies entwined together to make a unified core.

It was equally appropriate that the band responded to the crowd’s second demand for an encore with its biggest “hit,” As Tall As Lions‘s first and only single, “Love Love Love (Love Love)”. By the time the first cymbal hit to accent the welcomely dominant first bass note, the men onstage had adopted a somber, contemplative demeanor. The normally jovial Tavarez, who, until that point, had shown up Nigro vocally and appeared to captain the entire performance from the stage right, returned to the crowd’s “Thank you” chants with truly inspired playing, and the rest of the band followed suit. For one of the last times ever, As Tall As Lions let one of their transcendent songs be more important than themselves.

But my final memory of As Tall As Lions from the Paradise on December 20th will not be the one my brain recalls as both I and the band move on with our lives; it’s a bookend to keep the countless emotions I’ve associated with this band’s records and live shows from falling off the shelf. From seeing them nearly upstage my favorite band in 2006, to secretly unwrapping my friend’s copy of Lafcadio to get the first listen, to sneaking into The Living Room to watch them soundcheck for one of the first shows on the As Tall As Lions tour, ATAL has left the world with a truly monumental album and my mind rich with memories. What nobler end could a band strive to meet?