10:48 am Apr. 12, 2012
The turnout for the Tennis show at Brooklyn Bowl on Tuesday night was bigger than I’d expected.
It wasn’t a massive sellout or anything—you could get medium-close if you wanted to prior to the headliners coming on. But when the Denver indie-pop quartet began playing, the crowd solidified, occupying three-quarters of the floor. It’s hard to gauge the exact numbers from eyesight—the Bowl’s concert floor is deceptively wide. But it looked like 500 people were there to see them.
The surprise came from outside circumstances: This was the first night of two of Pulp playing at Radio City Music Hall and the first of three concerts for the Chickfactor 20 festival. This seemed like tough competition for an upstart band whose audience would seem to overlap heavily with both.
But those shows, lest we forget, were long since sold out, and the crowd at Brooklyn Bowl did not seem like the kind that cares whether or not it gets into instant-sellout shows or not. Good songs, though—those they liked. And that's what they got, concentrated.
I didn’t know anything about Tennis until a colleague urged me to try Young & Old, their recently issued second album on Fat Possum, produced by Patrick Carney, the Black Keys’ drummer. I fell quick and hard for the songs—retro-fried girl-group structures, instrumentation, arrangements, harmonies. (That Phil Spectorian tinge was well served by the high acoustics of Brooklyn Bowl.)
In front, in every way, is Alaina Moore’s voice, as matter-of-fact huge as Bethany Cosentino (of Best Coast) or Neko Case’s but working toward very different ends. Moore is pensive, not merely moony (like Cosentino), and while her lyrics are pretty basic they’re also more specific than the often-hazy Case.
“If I don’t use words then each sound goes unheard,” she sings on the piano-led reverb-fest “My Better Self.” “It comes and it goes”—and then she repeats “goes” in a higher pitch, breathy not like surrender but the anguish of one or a dozen or a hundred small decisions adult women have to make every damn day.
That’s what it felt like watching from the back as, every so often, a few different pairs of female friends would drop back from the crowd and dance (which the audience, en masse, didn’t, unless throwing gutter balls counts). They’d sing along, too. These songs meant something to them. It was nice to confirm my hunch that this band might have that sort of power.
"This is kind of a last-minute show," Moore told the crowd. Later she expounded: “We missed our flight. We made it here with no clothes, no coats, no toothpaste...” (The list was considerably longer, but you get the idea.)
You might not have guessed it from the performances. Moore, husband and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Riley, drummer James Barone, and a fourth player were forceful and focused, the arrangements knit really tight. They premiered a “new song, work in progress” with the hook phrase, “You’re the one I’ve been looking for.” At the end, Moore gives the line a very sweet high-note flip.
It seemed as if Moore was feeling her oats. There was no question where the stage’s spotlight fell—it felt very singer-with-backup, which may have been the point. For a couple of songs (“Petition,” my favorite on Young & Old, and “My Better Self”), Moore abandoned her stage-left standing keyboard, which she seemed comfortable bopping behind, and moved stage center. She’s not a great dancer, but I’ve seen worse, especially at indie shows.