Playing on Friday, July 21st, in the lead-up to the following week’s release of their new album, The Broken String, Justin Rice, Christian Rudder & co. all proved what their fans have known since their live August EP, if not earlier: Bishop Allen on tape is good; Bishop Allen live is better.
August EP wasn’t really an EP, as it contained 13 tracks, but it was called one because it was the eighth in a series of 12 EP’s Bishop Allen released over 2006 – one for each month. They’ve since taken their favorites from all of those four-song EP’s, and re-recorded them for The Broken String. Broken pieces made up roughly two-thirds of the set, meaning that the band hit almost all of the record (though unfortunately missed it’s clever closer, “The News From Your Bed”), with only a few from just the 2006 EP’s, or their 2003 debut, Charm School.
Though mostly a showcase for The Broken String, Bishop Allen opened their set with a June EP track not on Broken, “The Same Fire”. A relatively uninteresting song they wisely skipped over when making Broken, it did hold up better live on August EP, and so did it at South Street Seaport (QRO venue review). But then, the group launched into the first of four String songs, starting with the never-on-an-EP “Rain”. Rhythmic and catchy, with just a flat-out great beat, “Rain” really got people’s toes tapping, and was matched by the less driving, but more mariachi “Like Castanets”. However, it was the following “Click, Click, Click, Click” that was the definite crowd pleaser, and as they played the song about getting into photographs at weddings of people they don’t know (sort of an indie-pop Wedding Crashers), fan flash bulbs were a-popping. One of the unique advantages of playing an album that is itself drawn mostly from previous releases is that the crowd is much more likely to know your ‘new stuff’, and so Broken String pieces like “Click” and the following “Chinatown Bus” can be audience favorites, even before the record’s out.
That piece about Asia and the infamously cheap – and infamously hazardous – Fung-Wa bus was also another Bishop Allen song which outperformed its recorded delivery, as live it had a chance to build upon something of a one-note tone that it has on the album. Better-live tracks dominated the middle of the set, book-ended by The Broken String’s “Chinatown” and “The Monitor”, with the also oddly-topiced “Monitor” (about the Civil War ironclad battleship) growing even more expansive and orchestral – not to mention possibly being the most fitting song ever for South Street Seaport (and The Peking, the massive early-twentieth-century sailing vessel that looms over the dock). Just after “Chinatown”, and just before “Monitor”, were two Charm School pieces that rocked better live, “Busted Heart” and “Things Are What You Make of Them”. And at the core were two songs that didn’t need to get any better, October EP’s should’ve-been-on-The Broken String “Clementines”, and the absolutely fun Broken String original, “Middle Management” (another song that suited the time & place – Friday evening, just at the outer edge of the middle-and-oh-so-higher management Financial District).
There was some slippage after “Monitor”, with String’s “Choose Again” and “Butterfly Nets”, as both were a little too cute and small for the open-air setting (with singer/keyboardist Darbie Nowatka’s vocals on “Butterfly” particularly lost). But then Bishop Allen returned to their especially-good-live routine, improving String’s “Flight 180” by making it less singer/songwriter-y, and turning Charm School’s eponymous opener more bouncy, for their closer & encore return. Saving the best for last, the band launched into The Broken String’s top track, “Corazon”, the originally January EP track about the discarded piano they found that started the whole ‘twelve months, twelve EP’s’ project. And then they finished things off with a terrific cover of Johnny Cash’s classic, “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” (not a song one should play outdoors as anything but the finale…).
The night before The Village Voice’s Siren Music Festival at Coney Island, South Street Seaport was thick with indie-rock fans, yet it seemed like East River locals made their way to the front for their hometown band (even if Bishop Allen are named after a street in Cambridge, Mass…). However, the usually chatty group lacked some of that crowd familiarity as they played in such an open setting. But whatever the origins of the band or the crowd, no one could deny it was yet another great set by the always-great-live band.