The 1975 Vogue Theatre, Vancouver BC, April 26

The 1975 Vogue Theatre, Vancouver BC, April 26
Photo: Amy Ray
The 1975 are so hot right now. Helmed by vocalist Matthew Healy, with guitarist Adam Hann, drummer George Daniel and bassist Ross MacDonald, the Mancunian quartet's eponymous debut album premiered at #1 on the U.K. pop charts in the last quarter of 2013, going on to sell gold, and topped out at #17 in Canada. Their impact in Vancouver is evidenced by their selling out of Venue and, now, the Vogue in a matter of months.

The formula for their success is obvious. Taking far more trendy influence from the music of 1985 than 1975, their alt-rock and R&B-influenced synth-pop songs all run through the expected adolescent themes of sex, drugs and vague introspection. It's easy stuff to digest, like an Arrowroot biscuit. Backed by Polydor's coffers, their recordings are hyper-produced to satisfy dance floor needs and edgy enough to appeal to kids rebelling against their uptight parents. Indeed, it was a little awkward to see a bra thrown onstage at an all-ages show.

However, an important distinction: the 1975 are no major label fabrication. These boys have been working their emo angle together for over a decade now, so they know what they want to do and have the skills to do it (although Healy's dream of marrying Whitney Houston, part of what got him started in music, is no longer a possibility). They pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps and never compromised their vision, if you believe their PR.

From the moment they hit the stage, it was obvious that Healy fancies himself a Jim Morrison-style shamanic superstar. As the intro to "The City" began and a sea of smart phones lit up the darkened venue, Healy sauntered out in a leather and unbuttoned dress shirt, revealing his cleavage tattoo. With a wine bottle in one hand, he grabbed the mic with the other, forcibly stumbling about the stage while intermittently flipping his fauxhawk. To endear himself to the crowd, he went so far as to pull out a Canadian flag with his band's name scrawled on it in felt marker, before launching into chipmunk-hooked track "So Far (It's Alright)" from the U.K. version of their IV EP.

Healy seemed to relax into the performance and act more naturally as the show went on, though. He increasingly expressed gratitude for his fans' support, as well as concern for their safety. Just before playing the ironically titled "Settle Down," Healy noticed how many young girls were regularly being tramped and dragged over the security barrier. Thus, he announced that the band's mantra was love, and asked the crowd not to kick and push their fellow patrons, and to help each other up when they fall over.

Knowing the power of their "Girls" single, he said it should be fun, and he was right. The crowd sang along so loudly, they almost washed out the band, a boisterousness matched only by their reaction to "Chocolate" (which isn't actually about chocolate). He graciously accepted jewels, and noted that the bra thrown onstage was quite sassy, being encrusted with fake diamonds. Notably, he said that "Me" was a very important song to him, and instructed the crowd to shut up for it, though he apologized afterward for getting sombre on us. Later, with no false modesty, he proclaimed "fallingforyou" to be their best song.

Certainly, no one can say that Healy doesn't put the effort into playing the pop star role, but the crowds these days are different than the ones his heroes Michael Jackson and Peter Gabriel played to back in the day. For instance, when the noiR&B-laced "Head.Cars.Bending" from their Music for Cars EP hit its massive drop, a moment that would slay an EDM crowd, fewer arms went up in ecstasy than cellphones went up in doomed attempts to capture the fleeting moment. Literally half the crowd was staring at their personal screens when the band started playing their hit single "Chocolate" in the encore, forcing Healy to request, mid-song, that people put their phones away and share the moment with him, but there were still several holdouts after that.

The crowd's distraction was a bit of a shame, since the 1975 have their live show nailed down tight. With their years of experience in check, everything was fuller and louder, delivered with enough vigour to wrest the songs from their glossy studio renditions. Only "Talk!" came off sloppier than on record, but it was a rather muddled composition to begin with.

And yet, there remained a canned feeling to it all, a little too perfect and repetitive. The vocal hooks all retained the digitization that forged their manicured recordings, an effect that worked well on downtempo contexts, but made it harder to discern the talent of the star in general. Most of their mid-tempo four-chord songs plodded along into the beige middle. Take away the strobes, smoke and stumbling, and there wasn't a great deal of substance here.

The biggest musical highlight was saxophone player John Waugh, who dropped a solo on "Heart Out" that blew everyone else off the stage; the crowd sang so loud that it almost drowned out the band, and, for once hands in the air outnumbered phones. About an hour into their set, Hann was left alone onstage to make weird sounds while an unseen sax did runs in its wake. This and the looped guitar and synth noise that closed their set hinted that there may be something more, that some experimentation may be in the mail.

They do have good influences, citing everyone from Brian Eno and Prince to Sigur Ros and My Bloody Valentine, and they have all the tools to make something truly impressive. As it stands, the 1975 should play well with the Haim and Young Galaxy crowd, but if they dig deeper lyrically, write more complex songs, and tone down Healy's ego a shade, the sky is the limit.

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