For a long time, whenever someone asked me about the best concert I’ve seen, Explosions in the Sky was always one of the first bands to come to mind. The first (and up until this week, only) time I saw them was at the now defunct NorthSix in Brooklyn during the Winter of, I think, 2004. I closed my eyes when they came on-stage and completely forgot where I was until I opened them again 5 minutes before the end of their set, because I was just so focused on what they were playing. The crowd was hoping for an encore, but one of the members came out and apologized, saying that they were physically unable to play an encore because they had beat themselves up so badly during the show.

I walked away very, very impressed. So impressed, even, that seeing them live nearly ruined listening to their CDs for me. I still love listening to the albums, but whenever I do, I just think about how great they are live.

This week, Explosions in the Sky played two shows in NYC back to back: one at the Warsaw in Brooklyn, the other at the Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall in Manhattan. Having anxiously waited to see them again for quite some time, I went to both.

Show #1: Explosions w/ Mountains @ Warsaw

The door time for this show is listed as 8pm. I get there at 7:30 with plans to hang out in the bar and meet a friend for some drinks and pierogies. The show room is already open, with a pack of young kids at least 6 rows deep crowding the front of the stage. I am surprised at this until I look around and see how young the crowd is. The average age looks to be somewhere between 16 & 18, with kids wearing Say Anything sweatshirts and pitch black hair. Huh? Is post-rock becoming the new emo? Since when do people who like Fall Out Boy like Explosions in the Sky?

My friend hasn’t arrived, so I squeeze up next to the merch table to witness teenagers buying Explosions in the Sky merch by the truckload. I’m talking people with orders as large as “I want one each of these four shirts, this in vinyl, the new cd and the bookbag,” and not just a couple people, I mean almost everyone who was making purchases. At $10-$15 bucks for each piece of merchandise, the average showgoer is dropping at least $50 — and you know chances are that these kids aren’t paying for this stuff themselves. I feel like a cheapskate for buying just the one shirt until I remember that I’m a 22-year-old just out of college trying to live in New York.

My friend arrives. We eat pierogies & kielbasa, which we enjoy so thoroughly that we miss most of the opening band, Mountains. From the 1.5 songs I heard, Mountains are a little too atmospheric for my tastes, but 1.5 songs is certainly not enough to form a strong opinion.

Explosions in the Sky take the stage, and before playing a single note, they pre-emptively apologize if they’re a little rusty this evening, because they haven’t played a show in ages. With that, they launch into “First Breath After Coma,” a more than fitting metaphor for this show. It’s not just that they haven’t been playing many shows. In 2003, they released The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, and since then a strange assortment of releases followed. They composed an original score/soundtrack for Friday Night Lights (as if the big indie publications were going to give any positive ink to that!), then did an album-sized EP for the TRL Travels In Constants subscription series, which was even less publicized, despite being available entirely for free on their website. They’ve also been working on All of a Sudden, I Miss Everyone for four years.

The heavier each song they play gets, the closer they inch to the ground. Some of the songs they play while mostly or entirely on their knees. This may not be dance music, pop music, or any other genre of music that you can bop around to, but seeing Explosions in the Sky live forces you to react physically in some way. I close my eyes, move my shoulders, nod my head, moving somewhat incoherently, just responding to the music. I’d feel silly for doing it if everyone around me wasn’t doing the same thing. The crowd claps 10 seconds into each song to applaud the set list, they applaud at every gap in the music. Clearly the band has nothing to worry about here. Halfway through their set, a guy and girl standing behind me exchange a brief dialogue:

guy: they’re so good.
girl: they’re amazing.

This is the only talking I hear throughout the entire concert (which is saying something in New York, I can tell you). At an Explosions in the Sky show, you can’t help but be immersed in every sound that floats or cascades down from the speakers. Because if they make so much as one slight misstep, the whole song would collapse like a game of Jenga. I start smelling pot halfway through, and I’m surprised. Being under the influence at an Explosions show seems like it would be a disservice to the experience (save that shit for chilling at home with the CD, my friends).

After their set, I walk away impressed once again, while my friend walks away sounding much like the pitchfork review of their latest album: formulaic this, predictable that. But what our dear Chicagoan friend* forgets is that most good songs have aspects of predictability. It’s called music theory. You hear a note and your ears expect certain notes to follow. Doing this takes talent. It’s one thing to dismiss a three minute pop song composed of three chords as predictable – but Explosions in the Sky? With their 5-9 minute post-rock meets reformed hardcore slow/jams? Listen to their next album and predict every note, every drum hit on the first listen, write a song like this, then your predictability claims will mean something more than hipster disdain for a group that was once a well-kept secret and is now becoming immensely popular**. Yes, their new album isn’t anything groundbreaking compared to the others, but this is what they do, and they do it well. And no one seemed to have any problems with it before they did a soundtrack to a major film.

Explosions in the Sky: “First Breath After Coma” (download)

Show #2: Explosions w/ Ayano Kataoka & Joshua Quillen @ the Society for Ethical Culture Concert Hall (Wordless Music Series)

Of the two shows, which I bought tickets for around the same time, I was a bit more excited for the second. The first Wordless Series concert I went to, featuring Andrew Bird, was incredible. Since Explosions in the Sky is already wordless, I was unclear whether, like Andrew Bird was, they would be pushed into more classical song structures, or if they’d just leave their music as is. The answer was the latter, which was slightly disappointing, only because I was so curious about what they’d do if they had been asked to do something more inspired by classical music.

I had a horrendous day for assorted reasons, not the least of which was that I accidentally led myself and my friend to the wrong venue. We made it to the concert at 8pm, which was the starting time listed on our tickets, however, the program and the website both listed a 7:30 starting time (making the fact that this was only the third show in the series quite obvious). Because we were late, I once again saw only 1.5 songs from the opener, in this case marimba players Ayano Kataoka & Joshua Quillen. They were no doubt quite talented, but I’m not so sure that extended marimba playing is my thing.

I run to the bathroom between the sets, and a young teenage girl is on the phone with her friend who is upstairs, because we can hear notes, and she’s afraid that Explosions have already started playing. Her friend tells her the band is just warming up, and the girl is giddy with excitement about the fact that they’re onstage and starts gushing about wanting to run up to the stage and take pictures. Thanks to Explosions in the Sky, even a Lincoln Center affiliated program isn’t safe from teenage girl fandom.

When they come on, Explosions in the Sky have the host/announcer ask the audience to shut our eyes and just lay back and listen. It’s understandable – the seating is pews (this is in a church), and no one is going to stand up if they don’t have to. Though the nature of post-rock might seem ideal for a sit-down show, with Explosions that’s not quite the case, because, as I mention above, you feel compelled to move. When you’re sitting down for music like this, you’re just setting yourself up to get distracted or even fall asleep (especially if the band is asking you to close your eyes!) Although the band seems tighter and stronger technically, the crowd seems distracted, disoriented — removed from the music, even though the band plays just three new songs, instead of four like they did at the Warsaw. This feels less like of an emotional experience than the Warsaw performance, and more like a plain ol’ group of people watching a couple of musicians. The crowd rarely applauds during the show, but gives them a standing ovation afterwards. But I suppose that’s Manhattan for you.

Explosions in the Sky: “Welcome, Ghosts” (download)

Elsewhere: mix tape of my life (went to the first), Crackers United (went to both, preferred the second show), Blog del Jalapeno (only went to the second). The band taped an episode of Conan O’Brien right before the second show, and you can see their performance on YouTube here (and watch it quickly, ’cause Universal is laying the smackdown on all the other clips of it). Thanks to Flickr users MaryanneVentrice and Jalapeno for the show pictures above. My scans and horrible show pictures can be found here. Find out more about Explosions and the Wordless Music Series from the links on my sidebar.

*(I should mention that my beef with P4k writer Brian Howe goes way back, including the review of the last Two Gallants album, which he wrote off entirely because they wrote a song from the viewpoint of an african american slave during the civil war period and are not, themselves, african americans. I should mention that he did not give them flak, though, for writing from the point of view of women even though they’re men. Hey Brian Howe, does this mean other lyrical storytellers like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are in the wrong, as well? Just curious.)
**(interesting side note: of all the Explosions albums, Pitchfork gave the Friday Night Lights soundtrack the lowest rating (5.5), and the first two albums the highest – 7.9 for Innocence, their first, 8.9 for Those Who Tell The Truth…, their second. BIG SHOCKER.)