Stars Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON, December 17

Stars Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto ON, December 17
Photo: Stephen McGill
"When there's nothing left to burn, you must set yourself on fire." In the context of Stars' three-night stay at the Phoenix celebrating the sort-of ten-year anniversary of their hugely successful Set Yourself on Fire (the record technically dropped in 2004, but got its international release the next year), that epigram could have been interpreted as a guiding principle for a band that's exhausted its options and has to resort to nostalgia to attract an audience.
Fifteen years in, none of Stars' other records have stuck their landings quite as well as that monumental release, and they're a woefully underrated band, if one with a dedicated fan base. Torquil Campbell greeted the packed crowd gathered at the first of those three gigs last night by lifting a copy of Set Yourself on Fire into the air, pulling the record out of its sleeve, and cuing it up on a turntable to play the spoken intro through the club's massive sound system. Stars proceeded to play the album in its entirety, its intro a cue to submit to misery and commiseration — to let the "Soft Revolution" take over and "chase the demons out."
When Set Yourself on Fire made its way across the globe in 2005, prominent rock critic Robert Christgau called it an album about "the perils of romance among the disaffected classes," while single "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" was used to soundtrack the relationship sorrows of snotty rich kids in Newport Beach on Fox network television. As a record that spent so much runtime analyzing even the most mundane romantic gestures through a lens of eternity and waxing idealistic with hyperbolic (if eloquent) vocabulary, the demographic that dug into its emotional extremes was pretty wide.
Ten years later, even the fans that couldn't initially connect with the heartbreak and drama of SYOF have had time to experience their own and realize opening up and joining into the album's despair can have therapeutic results. Perhaps that's why so many fans sang their hearts out when Amy Millan delivered lines like  "live through this and you won't look back."
Stars are an act that's meant to burn in effigy (to love, to loss, to new beginnings), and by frontloading their set with the entirety of Set Yourself on Fire, that made another string of hits ("Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It," "Trap Door," "Dead Hearts," "Elevator Love Letter," "Midnight Coward," "No One is Lost") that were more concerned with moving forward than breaking down, all the more joyous. Topping off the night with an encore performance of "Take Me to the Riot" and their cover of the Pogues' Christmas classic, "Fairytale of New York," Campbell put any doubts that remained about their motivations to rest by assuring everyone, "We're Stars. We'll never go away. We're Stars."