Live Review: Foals with Bear Hands at Paramount Theatre 9/23/2016

photos by Bebe Labree Besch (view set)

The last time Foals were in town, frontman Yannis Philipakkis jumped off the Neptune Theatre’s balcony into the crowd. It was, quite frankly, as thrilling as it was dangerous. On the band’s return trip to Seattle three years later, he (wisely) did not jump from the Paramount Theatre’s balcony. Personal safety aside, Philipakkis can’t really do those kinds of things anymore – if he breaks his leg, a significant number of music festivals are going to have to find a headline act on short notice. But all night, you could see it in the frontman’s eyes that he wanted to jump off that balcony and into a pit full of people ready to catch him. It’s that wild-card chaos that made Foals a top-notch live act when they were still playing sweaty clubs and it’s what propelled them to headline arenas in their native continent. On the victory lap tour behind their most muscular album to date, 2015’s What Went Down, the Oxford, England quartet showed their big room bona fides by fine-tuning the athletic qualities of their performance to match the increasingly massive sounds that they’re produce.



Opening the night were Bear Hands, whose kinetic, synthy rock falls in a similar lane as the headliners. The Brooklyn outfit have streamlined their most magnetic qualities over the past five years, which is clearly serving them well in their current role of warming up big rooms. Thirty minutes or so of tunes (mostly from their latest, this year’s You’ll Pay For This) swung for the anthemic, post-punk-ish fences and mostly connected. But as soon as the band cleared their equipment from the stage and a Foals banner swiftly unfurled behind them, the anticipation for the headliner eclipsed anything that had come before. Entering to now-regular opener “Prelude” – the recorded moment where Foals went from being an arty rock band that can get big to a big rock band that can get arty – Philipakkis and co. wasted no time seeing how much volume they could wring out of the venue’s PA. “Snake Oil” into “Olympic Airways” into “My Number” is about as good as an opening salvo as one could craft from the Foals catalog, and it set the tone for the night: save for a few moments where atmosphere and catharsis reigned (“Late Night”, “Give It All”, a sublime “A Knife in the Ocean”), Foals were coming hard and fast until stage curfew or until they ran out of water bottles for Philipakkis to douse the crowd with.

And considering the band’s status as UK festival demigods (and US theatre demigods), this is a more or less foolproof strategy. 2013’s Holy Fire marked the no-turning-back moment where Foals embraced their intuitive sense for funky, math-y explosions of guitar malestroms, and they doubled down on it on What Went Down, likely in part because if you’re in the back of a crowd of 20,000 people, it’s hard to see what kind of onstage antics Philipakkis is partaking in but it’s completely feasible to hear how loud and technically impressive the band is. Philipakkis and Jimmy Smith are a formidable guitar pairing, using their chemistry to turn alternated plucky chimes into guitar lines so razor sharp they could cut through the most awful FOH sound guy of all time. Walter Gervers and Jack Bevan have the “hold down the song” responsibly of the rhythm section down pretty well and the “hold down the song while wailing on your instrument” part down even better. And the quiet MVP is keyboardist Edwin Congreave, whose treatments and textures sound more crucial than ever to the Foals live experience now that they’re generally guaranteed to have a mix that doesn’t bury his contributions.

And outfitting that top-notch band is four very-good-to-great records with a handful of tracks that can’t fail under any circumstances. If Foals were playing “Inhaler” to a crowd of one, that person would be on the floor doing the Homer Simpson victory dance. If they played “Spanish Sahara” to a room full of non-English speakers, they’d still be moved by its breath-stealing climax without knowing the meaning of its heartbreaking lyrics. And no matter where they play “What Went Down”, Philipakkis will find some area of the venue to jump into and run around in. (Considering the aforementioned balcony’s height, he went from the stage right to the pit at this show.) Just as they’ve become an increasingly reliable band in the studio, Foals have eased into their headline status with seemingly no turbulence. Philipakkis may now be singing in rooms that have balconies too high for him to jump from, but watching him lead the band through ninety furious minutes, you know that you can’t be sure he won’t do it anyway.

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