LIVE: The Front Bottoms @ Empire Live, 12/17/2021
A Hectic Conversation Between Them & Us
“My old roommate was obsessed with them!” said my significantly-younger housemate of the band. “You don’t know who The Front Bottoms are?!” my like-aged friend exclaimed, aghast at the wildly heinous verbal crime I had just committed in my ignorance. You would have thought I committed a war crime based on that reaction.
I pride myself on being aware of all the different kinds of music out there on the airwaves, regardless of whether or not I actually know, or like, any of the music. For example: Do I listen to Faith No More? Absolutely not. Do I know who they are? Sure, I’ve heard of them. I know under which genre umbrella they stand under. Am I a fan of Ambrosia? Nope. Would I be able to pick them out in a lineup? Nope. Have I heard of them? Yep. For whatever reason, The Front Bottoms did not check any of those boxes.
After being asked to cover the show by Fueled by Ramen’s publicist, I readily accepted. I’m always a fan of experiencing new music, especially when I get to pair that passion of music with my love of photography. I did some research and my interest was piqued in the descriptions of the band. While I enjoy folk music, I’ve never been a fan of punk, or emo (all of which are adjectives that find themselves associated with The Front Bottoms). My brain simply could not (and arguably still doesn’t) wrap its way around the “emo punk folk” descriptor. No matter how many times I tried to parse it together, I simply couldn’t make sense of it. All those little nuances of each genre came together once I saw them on stage, but not one minute before.
Having not prepared my ears for the show, and being preceded by solo act Sydney Sprague, I had expectations of a headliner with a much softer sound. Accompanied only by her white electric Fender Jazzmaster, Sprague had the sweet cursive singing of an indie singer-songwriter with a pop-rock sound. Unfortunately, I found Sprague to be rather unremarkable. That’s not to say she was bad; you will rarely hear me say that an artist is “bad.” It takes a truly significant multi-directional butchering to say someone was “bad.” Sprague can clearly sing. She can clearly play. She can clearly write. But the brunette with the wavy hair and Doc Martens was missing a confident stage presence and a timbre that would separate her from other indie artists. And frankly, she almost seemed bored to be up there. It’s entirely possible that the context for her music wasn’t right, and so neither was she. Her music did not amp the crowd up the way it needed to, though the audience did appreciate her rendition of Blink-182’s “All The Small Things.” That one was placed at pretty much the tail end of her set, it was one they knew, and it was one of the more upbeat songs she sang. For the rest of her set, the audience’s attitude was complacency at its simplest. This was extra evident after The Front Bottoms took the stage. Before the headliners, the crowd was an awful din, talking over her and drinking without hearing anything she had to say. All things considered, Sprague’s set suffered into a lackluster cabaret; it was deserving of a more-attentive audience and a more relevant context for the utmost enjoyment of her music.
And so it was then, when The Front Bottoms came out, that the connection between those three genres (punk-folk-emo), and the disconnect between the opener and headliner became clear. The Front Bottoms emerge, headed by vocalist and guitarist Brian Sella. Backlit by round lights that oscillated colors like pinwheels, the band was dressed sharply in button downs, ties, and sport jackets. The energy heightened with the strum of the first chord of their opening song “Leaf Pile.” You could feel that energy buzz around the room, heavy and tense like static before a lightning strike. Then it explodes as the voices of the sold-out crowd join in a chorus of exclamations, “I’m gonna crash! Crash! Crash!”
The Front Bottoms invest such energy in their performance, so much so that by the third song, they’re already glistening with rhinestones of sweat that are dripping from the strands of their hair. Their audience absorbs the infectious vitality, and in its osmosis, is reflected back in a perfectly volleyed conversation again and again. To me, that’s truly what it seemed to be. It was less music, and more shouted and conversational storytelling with music accompaniment. And that’s okay. That’s what the audience came to see, and it doesn’t need to be something I personally enjoy. It was interesting for me to witness as a bystander. There was so much to read behind those frantic, manic chords; there are these stories of angst and introspection, pain and crisis, and all the motifs those mid-2000s “emo” bands sang about. It had a homegrown garage band sound, one that would feel at home if placed in any 2000s teen movie. I know how that can read like an insult, but it’s not. Not in the slightest. It took me back to my angsty days in high school. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still angsty…I’m just not in high school.
While the audience screaming along made it challenging to hear the band itself, I think the fact that the audience shouts along speaks volumes (no pun intended.) It means that the audience is invested in the words. It means they are reading and emoting the message, not just enjoying it on a surface level. From my own personal experience, the songs you put most of your energy into experiencing are the ones you feel you connect with the most. I felt myself connecting with the lyrics being shouted from all corners of the venue. To add to the chaos, Sydney Sprague was brought out for “Cough It Out.” Once again, her voice got lost not only to the context, but to the cries of the band and audience. She was upstaged by the red and yellow tube men flailing at stage left and stage right, inflated at the start of the song. A small instrument even managed to garner more attention than Sprague did at either of her stage cameos. A little melodica crying out from between the lips of the musician on keys.
The audience helped make this show so enjoyable. They were as fun and colorful as the band’s set design and merch. The audience demographics track with the band’s personal beliefs; some merchandise proceeds were being donated towards various charities, including one designated towards the Pride Center of the Capital Region. I have a lot of respect for artists who are unapologetic about the reputable and charitable causes they believe in and the groups those charities benefit.
My only criticism of this show would be that I would have liked to see Brian Sella step out from behind the mic more. There was a lot of movement by his bassist, his other guitarist, even the keyboardist was flipping their hair. Between the strumming and the shouting of all the people in the room, to me it would have been a good space to interact with the audience who adores TFB so much. Even if it was something sarcastically playful like chastising an audience member unironically filming on their phone as the band sings, “Stop taking pictures on your phone!”
My evening with The Front Bottoms and guest Sydney Sprague was a wild and fun one, and was probably as dangerously close to normal as I’ve felt in a long time—even with the neon green mask strapped to my head and the black one donned by the bassist. Unfortunately, as the omicron variant makes its rise, I wonder how this will affect audiences and bands alike. We all hoped we’d be out of this pandemic by now. I imagine TFB won’t be nearly as awesome if you’re shouting “I’m gonna crash! Crash! Crash!” at your computer screen by yourself as you watch a StageIt show. Nobody wants that. We want live music.
Wear your fucking mask. Get your fucking vaccine. Do it for all the bands you love. Please.
The Front Bottoms:
01 Leaf Pile, 02 Vacation Town, 03 West Virginia, 04 Montgomery Forever, 05 Love at First Sight, 06 Awkward Conversations, 07 Peach (second verse skipped by accident), 08 Jim Bogart, 09 Twelve Feet Deep (last-second addition because of Peach flub), 10 Cough It Out (feat. Sprague)
Set 2: Eponymous Album Playthrough
11 Flashlight, 12 Maps, 13 Looking Like You Just Woke Up, 14 Mountain, 15 Rhode Island, 16 The Beers, 17 Father, 18 Swimming Pool, 19 The Boredom is the Reason I Started Swimming, It’s Also the Reason I Started Sinking, 20 Bathtub, 21 Legit Tattoo Gun, 22 Hooped Earrings
23 Tye Dye Dragon, 24 Twin Size Mattress.