stellastarr* treads a fine line: a little more emotional, and they’re emo; a little more jangly, and they’re pop-punk; a little more affected an appearance, and they’re just for show. But between those lines, the Brooklyn-based quartet has crafted an effective and appealing mix of art-pop and indie-rock.
With a somewhat surprising collection of songs, stellastarr* lost some of their melody at Gramercy Theatre (QRO venue review) on March 7th, 2007, but their power was raised a notch, essential for the venue. More importantly, their emotions showed through, and really connected with the crowd.
The band really went against form with their set-list. That they included a few completely new songs, like “Warchild” and “Love Is All”, is to be expected, as they gear up a new album. But instead of making the meat of their performance tracks off their 2005 breakout, Harmonies For the Haunted, instead almost half of stellastarr*’s numbers were from their less melodic, but more powerful, 2003 self-titled debut (lead vocalist Shawn Christensen even said, “We’re gonna do stuff off our first record, if you don’t mind”). And instead of building to their big hit single “Sweet Troubled Soul” somewhere in the late middle of the set, they laid it down as the second song of the night (after Harmonies’ opener, “Lost In Time”). The more forceful second half of their set was all stellastarr* and brand-new material, including the encore.
By and large, it worked. The band followed up Christensen’s forewarning with a better-than-on-stellastarr* version of “No Weather”. Starting with the more tuneful “Lost” and “Troubled” synced the audience in quite well, bringing the crowd in early without having to push it. And it ensured that the concert didn’t reach a predictable peak with “Troubled”, but instead with the Harmonies/stellastarr* combo “On My Own” and “Somewhere Across Forever”. “On My Own” particularly shined live, as it brought forward the song’s emotion in a way it can’t on a record, with Christensen’s arms-and-torso gyrations never quite going overboard. Following that up with the brand-new “Love” may have been an error, but it was a brave error. And beginning their encore with an unfamiliar number didn’t take away from the raucous one-two stellastarr* finisher, of audience favorite “My Coco” and the catchy “Pulp Song”, whose lyrics of “We’ve lied to you” were still ringing in the ears of fans, as they left Gramercy Theatre happy.
The concert was actually the opening night for the new Gramercy Theatre, which had been revamped to hold its first-ever rock show. Situated on Manhattan’s busy 23rd Street, just north of such established venues as Webster Hall (QRO venue review) and Irving Plaza (QRO venue review), Gramercy is somewhat larger, but unfortunately has a distinctly ‘cavernous’ feel, like a grand old-time theater whose large balcony section has been removed. There’s a sloped seated section in the back, but given its distance from the stage, and relative small size, it is a poor substitute. Gramercy also kept with the New York tradition of large indie-rock venues, being more sparse and dusty than shiningly clean. It was also remarkably cold in temperature, but that actually worked in its favor, once the floor was packed and active.
stellastarr* largely overcame any problems of presence with the crowd, who were a rather motley collection of hyper girls, artsy scenesters, and elders verging on (or fully in) middle age. The brand-new material did not severely jar the crowd, and the few Harmonies songs that they did include were good live choices. Perhaps their next concert, for the third anniversary of their label Plus One, at Brooklyn’s Luna Lounge (QRO venue review), put the band in mind of their past: Luna Lounge was their first venue ever. Or perhaps they just wanted to try something different, like their now-brunette bassist Amanda Tannen. Whether out of strategy or out of emotion, stellastarr* gave Gramercy a strong opening night, which was fitting for a group that deploys great strategy with their emotions.