My Backwards Look: Frightened Rabbit Marks 10 Years of The Midnight Organ Fight REVIEW+PHOTOS: FRIGHTENED RABBIT @ BOWERY BALLROOM 2/23/18
NEW YORK, NY- We hide self-doubt behind a facade of detachment, present a carefully-groomed social-media face to the world, and speak in a manner that erases the line between sincerity and irony. That’s part of the postmodern condition, where hyperconnectivity produces alienation, truth comes in shades of grey, and sarcasm is the order of all days. But Frightened Rabbit‘s Scott Hutchison isn’t one for circuitous references or evasive narration. Instead, the Glasgow-by-way-of-Selkirk frontman turns the raw messiness of life into fiercely honest, folk-tinged rock.
To mark the tenth birthday of sophomore album The Midnight Organ Fight, Frightened Rabbit — which typically plays 1500-person venues like Terminal 5 and the 9:30 Club — booked a tour of smaller clubs, treating devoted fans in Chicago, Toronto, Boston, NYC, Philly, and DC to intimate nights of rousing, full-crowd singalongs. It’s the sort of reunion you actually want to attend, as evidenced by fans who followed the band through multiple cities.
On Friday at Bowery Ballroom, the first of Frightened Rabbit’s two-night stop in New York, the band — Scott; his brother, Grant Hutchison (drums); Andy Monaghan (keys, guitar); Simon Liddell (keys, guitar); and Billy Kennedy (keys, bass) — exuded a joyous energy mirrored by an enthralled crowd that packed the floor and balcony (and perched on the staircases, to the dismay of venue staff trying to enforce fire codes). The audience took over the singing at points, with Scott conducting from the edge of the stage. Peter Katis (Interpol, The National, Kurt Vile), who produced TMOF, was in attendance, and received a special shout-out from Scott.
Frightened Rabbit’s songs hone in on corporeal and occasionally carnal details, getting into your head by way of your gut. The lyrics are grainy, sometimes obscene, and always arresting. Take “Keep Yourself Warm,” for example, which features the chorus: You won’t find love in a hole — it takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm. This interest in the physical manifestation of feeling — how emotions are embodied, in a literal sense — is present throughout the album and across the full Frightened Rabbit catalog. “The Modern Leper,” the opening track to TMOF, dissects a crumbling relationship, amputating memories as if they’re infected limbs: Vital parts fall from his system and dissolve in Scottish rain … Vitally he doesn’t miss them he’s too fucked up to care. “State Hospital” from 2013’s Pedestrian Verse describes a person as a slipped disc in the spine of community; and the wordplay in “Death Dream” from 2016’s Painting of a Panic Attack is brilliantly macabre: Butterflied arms, tell me that this one has flown … Blood seems black against the skin on your porcelain back.
Halfway through the set, Scott remarked on the passage of time: “We had to Wikipedia this album,” he joked, before recalling his trepidation about spending time in studio with two cats (he’s allergic). “But the cats didn’t shed for two weeks,” he continued–“it was feline magic.”
As deeply meaningful as TMOF clearly is to fans (at one point, an audience member handed up a bouquet of roses, which Scott presented, on bent knee, to Grant), the band isn’t resting on its laurels. The set, which featured TMOF in its entirety, was bookended by newer material that the crowd knew equally well, kicking off with “Living in Colour” and ending with “The Loneliness and the Scream.” Halifax-based indie rockers Wintersleep, who are supporting Frightened Rabbit on this tour, joined in for the encore.
And Frightened Rabbit’s hard work is not confined to the sonic realm. At each show, they’ve been auctioning off drumheads featuring Scott’s drawings (before forming the band, he studied illustration at the Glasgow School of Art), with proceeds going to Everytown for Gun Safety.
The band has invited fans to share their memories using the hashtag #TMOF10, which are collected on the band’s website. Skimming the tweets and Insta captions, I’m reminded that music provides a vocabulary for the things we can’t otherwise express. As Scott relays in “I Feel Better,” I’ll stow away my greys in a padlocked case, in a padlocked room … Only to be released when I sing all the songs I wrote about you. In listening to someone else articulate difficult memories, we are able to run our fingers along the jagged edges of our own pasts. And I’ve not found a more sublime formulation of this sentiment than that in “My Backwards Walk“: I’m working on my faults and cracks … Filling in the blanks and gaps … When I write them out they don’t make sense … I need you to pencil in the rest.
It seems ironic that sad songs can make us happy — but it also makes perfect sense. Albums like TMOF offer the consolation of recognition. They let us know we aren’t alone in the things we feel — and that’s no small thing.
It was fitting, then, that the night ended in a cozy bar on Clinton Street (The Dancer), where band, crew, and friends ordered off a TMOF-themed menu featuring drinks like “Old Old Fashioned.” With Florida on our minds, I offered one of the Wintersleep guys a Trump-for-Trudeau trade. I also learned a bit of the backstory behind “Fields of Wheat,” a stunner of a song recorded in an Airbnb in Galveston, Texas, at the tail end of the Rabbit’s last U.S. tour. (The song, written in response to Theresa May’s machinations, was released with the hashtag #FucktheTories.) And as the bartender announced last call, I thought of how wonderfully improbable it was, given our wildly varied origin stories, that we’d find ourselves here at this bar, on this night, at the crossroads of music made and shared and loved. If we both get old fashioned, we won’t have to rely on our memories.
Frightened Rabbit wraps up their U.S. tour this week with two shows in Washington, DC, before heading back across the pond for a string of performances. Most (but not all) are sold out, so don’t delay in grabbing tickets. Dates here.
Vivian is a Texas-raised, NYC-based photographer. She writes about critters by day and music by night. Find her on Instagram (@Lithophyte) and at www.LithophytePhoto.com.