Something Carries On: The Songs of Frightened Rabbit Indie-rock greats pay tribute to Scott Hutchison at Rough Trade
BROOKLYN, NY- Tonight isn’t about mourning — Scott wouldn’t have wanted that. So let’s laugh and dance and sing together.
That was the sentiment expressed by the folks behind Wednesday night’s concert at Rough Trade, which featured Julien Baker, Aaron Dessner (The National), Kevin Devine, Craig Finn (The Hold Steady), and Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), playing the songs of Frightened Rabbit. All five knew Scott Hutchison, frontman of the Scottish indie-rock band, as a friend, collaborator, and tourmate.
Scott left us in May after a long struggle with depression, and the rawness of the loss felt by the music community is testament to the immensity of the love he inspired in fans and friends. The Rough Trade show, billed as “Tiny Changes: A Celebration of the Songs of Scott Hutchison,” sold out in seconds (literally), leaving disappointed fans trawling StubHub, where resellers were asking as much as $950 a ticket.
“I’m going to read off my phone because that’s how I’m going to get through this,” Jenny Eliscu (Sirius XM host and Rolling Stone contributing editor) quipped as she set the stage for the evening in honest, heartfelt fashion. Jenny shared some memories of Scott and assured us that he really was the person that fans want to imagine a music hero to be — funny, self-effacing, kind.
Each musician selected three Frightened Rabbit songs to perform, and each prefaced the set with remarks about Scott. Kevin Devine recounted their pen pal friendship, which stretched on for years before the two actually had a face-to-face conversation. Their emails fell into two categories — absolute absurdist nonsense and real talk about mental health. When Kevin’s 2017 tour plans fell through (Modern Baseball cancelled the entire run), Scott did not hesitate to bring him along with Frightened Rabbit as an opener for the last round of Painting of a Panic Attack shows. Earlier this year, when he reached out to Scott about doing a split single, the latter replied within minutes (“I checked my email time-stamp to make sure I remembered this correctly,” Kevin said). Scott’s response: “Sight unseen, the answer is yes.”
The evening’s stripped-down, acoustic renditions of “Break,” “400 Bones,” and “I Wish I Was Sober,” all from 2016’s Painting of a Panic Attack, laid bare the vulnerable heart of each. It felt like a playful wink and smile, hearing Scott’s slyly filthy turns of phrase sung with such unabashed earnestness. “It took me how many listens to figure out that ‘another French death’ refers to an orgasm?” Kevin noted at one point to general laughter, one of several moments of comic relief in a room thrumming with anticipation.
Craig Finn (The Hold Steady) recounted post-gig nights out with Scott, both in New York and in Glasgow, and remarked on the Scotsman’s gift for turning sad songs into something that felt better, even triumphant. Craig himself proceeded to do just that, eyes screwed shut and arms outstretched in emphatic verses, with the crowd joining in for parts of “Head Rolls Off” from Midnight Organ Fight, the seminal Frightened Rabbit album that turned ten this year. Reflecting on the first time they shared a stage, Craig said, “Scott suggested we do this one together, and when I asked why, he said, ‘I don’t know, you seem to talk about Jesus sometimes.'” Craig’s set also included “Acts of Man” and “The Twist.”
A line of mic stands and music stands stretched across the stage, and it partially obscured my view of Julien Baker. Visual cues were not necessary, though — we could hear the tears when she shared what Scott and the music of Frightened Rabbit meant to her.
The Memphis native’s voice can be thunderous — her roots are in post-punk and hardcore — so when she pulls that power inward into spare, acoustic guitar rock, the effect is a kind of devastating vulnerability, as if her slight form is a levee about to break. (She shares vocals with Scott on “How It Gets In” from Recorded Songs, a three-track EP released last year — side-by-side, the two sound like would-be lovers, starting to dare to trust.) For Julien, Pedestrian Verse was a transformative album, and a natural starting point for her set was “Holy.” “How brilliant is that line, thank God I’m full of holes?” she asked, elaborating on the acceptance of imperfections. The National’s Aaron Dessner, who produced Painting of a Panic Attack, then joined Julien for “Nitrous Gas” and “The Woodpile” (“the hard part is not singing this in a Scottish accent,” Julien said with a soft smile).
Both stayed on stage for Ben Gibbard‘s set, switching off on keys and guitars. The Death Cab for Cutie frontman distilled into a simple sentence the essence of Scott’s gift: he wrote poetry that perfectly captured the things for which we did not even know there were words. Though I’ve listened to Ben’s cover of “My Backwards Walk” (for Spotify Sessions), it did not prepare me for how unbearably beautiful those verses sound in Ben’s voice, round and warm, sweet but not saccharine. It felt as if we were trying, by our collective presence, to start filling in the blanks and gaps left by loss. Refrains like you’re the shit and I’m knee-deep in it, or it takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm (from “Keep Yourself Warm”), felt transformed from wretched or raunchy lines into catharsis. Ben closed out his set with the haunting “Death Dream,” the other four musicians joining in on backing vocals and instruments.
All five joined forces for the final two songs of the evening, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land,” and “Old Old Fashioned.” How to describe this — the intensity in Julien’s furrowed brow and Aaron’s gaze, the smiles exchanged between Ben and Craig, the way Kevin gazed upward, perhaps at the crowd in the mezzanine, or maybe further up, to the firmament — was Scott looking down? This was a room full of people who adored the man who penned these songs: fans who have clutched at certain songs like a lifeline, and friends who wished they didn’t have to be singing Scott’s songs in his absence. There’s a certain kind of electricity created only by such overwhelming love.
Ben later recounted the evening’s conclusion. “Having exhausted everything we’d prepared by the end of the encore, the DJ blasted ‘The Modern Leper’ over the PA to an empty stage while the entire room sang along at top volume. This gang” — referring to the five musicians — “stood in the wings watching in amazement without a single dry eye. It was a moment I will never forget.”
I won’t forget that moment either, nor what happened next. By then, even the DJ had run out of songs. The room was dark and it was clear the artists were not going to take the stage again. Yet nobody was donning winter coats or shuffling toward the exits. Instead, scattered voices took up the refrain familiar to any Frightened Rabbit devotee — the “woah oh oh oh” motif from “The Loneliness and the Scream” that once called the band back for the encore. More voices joined in. We started to clap out the beat. And then there we all were on a December night, strangers and friends with arms slung ’round each other’s shoulders, the whole room singing the refrain, over and over again, in crescendo: Fell down, found love, I can lose it again, but now our communal heart beats miles from here.
Even now, days later, my chest tightens when I recall the moment. I managed to keep it together while the musicians were on stage, but lost my composure during the crowd sing-along. The girl next to me, who I’d met only earlier that evening, pulled me into a hug. We sang Scott’s words into each other’s ears. In that dark room, I closed my eyes and thought back to the night I stood in the back stairwell at Bowery Ballroom looking out at the audience from the band’s vantage point — that sea of ecstatic expressions. I closed my eyes and imagined Scott standing at the edge of the stage, shirtsleeves rolled up, a huge grin on his face, sweaty hair plastered to forehead, waving his arms like a conductor.
After I left Rough Trade, I met a friend for a drink. He likes Frightened Rabbit but is not a mega-fan. When he asked how the show was, I didn’t know how to respond. “Special,” I said. He waited for me to elaborate. I tried, but the words coming out of me were flimsy, unable to bear the weight of what I felt.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows contains invented words for strangely powerful emotions. It defines exulansis as “the tendency to give up talking about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.” Is that what I was experiencing?
Music fandom is absurd. It’s illogical to relate to songs as if they were written about us when they clearly were not. It’s unreasonable to spend money on shirts and posters and beer cozies and yet more posters. It’s borderline obsessive to follow your favorite band on the road. But anyone who has deeply loved any band knows that this connection isn’t about what’s rational. It’s about what makes us feel like we belong. What makes us feel seen and understood.
The celebration of Scott’s songs on Wednesday night was the anti-exulansis of the frabbit community — a refusal to discount what we felt, to let these emotions drift away until the memory itself feels out of place.
Scott Hutchison was beloved not just for his songs, but for what he embodied — kindness, empathy, hope. I wish he didn’t struggle so. But I have some understanding of those struggles. It provides a measure of comfort to know that Scott’s songs continue to burn brightly, way into the night and beyond the grave. And it’s heartening to see charity fundraisers, big and small, from the Rough Trade concert to fans’ lyrics art, illustrations, and photo-collage projects. These acts of kindness are our way of remembering Scott. To crib from the man’s own words: And you know when it’s all gone, something carries on.
We miss you, Scott.
In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, the Samaritans Helpline can be reached at 116 123.
Kevin Devine — Break, 400 Bones, I Wish I Was Sober (w/ Julien Baker)
Craig Finn — Head Rolls Off, Acts of Man, The Twist
Julien Baker — Holy, Nitrous Gas (w/ Aaron Dessner), The Woodpile (with AD)
Ben Gibbard — My Backwards Walk (w/ AD), Keep Yourself Warm (w/ AD and JB), Death Dream (w/ AD, JB, Craig Finn, Kevin Devine)
All — Swim Until You Can’t See Land, Old Old Fashioned