Taking Back Sunday, Kentish Town Forum, gig review: Ageing emo band prove they've still got something left to give

Steve Anderson
Adam Lazzara: part biker gang extra, part Russell Brand wannabe: Getty

Guitar music is dead. That’s what a million sniggering broadsheet beginning-and-end-of-year lists would have you believe anyway. Four or five musicians on a stage thrashing out four-minute hits with big riffs and even bigger choruses just doesn’t cut it anymore – it’s unoriginal, it lacks diversity, and it’s no longer exciting. Apparently.

Thank heavens then, that that’s way off the mark and music fans ignore the critics to pack out venues night-in, night-out, to listen to the latest offerings of rock bands still putting out killer records.

Long Island’s Taking Back Sunday may seem an odd case in point. Frontman Adam Lazzara – part Sons of Anarchy extra, part Russell Brand’s Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall – frequently talks of “rock ’n’ roll” as he prances around the stage of the Forum in north London. The band, who made their name in the early Noughties at the peak of the emo explosion with melodramatic tales of teenage angst and betrayal, would have been laughed out of town for using the term 15 years ago, but now it seems fitting. Through changing line-ups and constant reinventions over their seven studio albums, the band have seen themselves grow into a solid arena rock band, and their latest release Tidal Wave takes them right back to basics with chunky guitar lines, simple refrains and minimal pretense. Where New York contemporaries Brand New took the arthouse fork in the road (which, admittedly served them very well) TBS took the opposite.

While tracks from Tidal Wave get a decent airing, with the band coming on to album-opener “Death Wolf”, and later showcasing the titular single “Tidal Wave” (an upbeat gruff punk number that manages to simultaneously riff on The Ramones and Billy Bragg), it’s the group’s foundation material that – unsurprisingly – gets the warmest reception.

TBS’s 2002 debut Tell All Your Friends is still regarded as their magnum opus and an album that came to define its time, before “emo” became a dirty word, hijacked by US “alternative” fashion chain stores and Daily Mail columnists [disclaimer, this writer still considers it one of the best albums of that decade full-stop]. Self-denigrating and often embarrassingly violent lyrics like “you could slit my throat and with my one last gasping breath I’d apologise for bleeding on your shirt” inspired a thousand copycat verses and equally bad haircuts, but these originals from “You’re So Last Summer” are the ones spat back by the Forum’s mainly late twenties crowd with the most ferocity. The ageing TBS – having now been back in their Tell All Your Friends line-up since 2010 – are probably sick to death of playing these comparatively juvenile, heart-on-sleeve tracks they wrote as teenagers, but if they are, they don’t let it show too overtly -– after all, it’s what pays the bills.

Lazzara, while visibly chunkier and more grizzly than in his clean-cut poster boy youth, still struts the stage with the showman swagger he’s known for, swinging his microphone cable and frequently punctuating his staccato syllables with his characteristic body-popping. Between songs, his frenetic patter in his ever-more-Southern drawl (Lazzara was born in Alabama) give him an air of the maniacal evangelical preacher.

Next to Lazzara, the rest of the band are relative statues, with co-vocalist and guitarist John Nolan providing the safe pair of hands to his bandmate’s wily outbursts. During one break, Lazzara recalls how a UK festival appearance and “two-day bender” two years ago resulted in one of their worst performances ever [I was there, it was truly embarrassing] and subsequently formed the lyrical basis of “All Excess” from Tidal Wave. Nolan shakes his head, laughing, and you wonder how much the band have had to put up with from the unpredictable frontman.

As is often true in the much-maligned genre, Lazzara struggles vocally to pull off what he does on record, relying on the crowd more than he should, and at one point sounding rather ovine as he sings “body like a punching baah-aag” on the poppy “Never Stood a Chance”. Thankfully the crowd are more than happy to oblige to fill in and the rest of the band – completed by guitarist Eddie Reyes, bass player Shaun Cooper and Mark O’Connell on the drums – bolster the sound enough to forgive a few vocal discrepancies.

With a set spanning 15 years of material (an absence of anything from 2009’s New Again is not mourned), the changing face of the band and its eclectic approach is laid bare. “Better than Bon Jovi!” one man screams at the back, and while it’s hard to whole-heartedly agree, as they launch into the Kings of Leon-baiting “Flicker Fade” it’s clear TBS have a gift for a grown-up hard rock ballad as much as they did a hormonal revenge anthem in their youth.

Their lack of pretense is underlined as they admit they won’t be performing an encore, before finishing on the double-whammy of rock club night staples “Cute Without the E (Cut from the Team)” and “MakeDamnSure”, both receiving the biggest singalongs of the night.

Their latest offerings might not carry the same cultural currency as their earliest release, but it’s heartening to see a band sticking to their guns, while not being afraid to embrace what got them there in the first place.

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