FEATURE: American Football / Into It. Over It. – Live at Webster Hall, 10.11.14
by Chad Jewett
American Football played their comprehensive, transfixing set beneath a glowing banner of the aged white farmhouse that covers their sole full-length. With just a little effort one could imagine the whole evening taking place on that lawn in front of that slatted two-story, as if the band’s long-awaited performance of the classic American Football was some more complicated, cerebral version of John Cusack holding aloft that boombox in Say Anything. That seems to be one of the threads of American Football – that the whole forty minutes might be taking place on the same night, parked outside of that same house. To see the band so movingly backlit by that poignant, suburban-mythic image is to be reminded that that illuminated window and that lone tree are swiftly becoming icons. You could easily imagine the nighttime cover of American Football alongside the rainbow lines that decorate the corner of pocket editions of Salinger, the pink-and-white composedness of a DVD copy of The Royal Tenenbaums. Nearly every stitch of cloth at the band’s merch table featured some version of that house – an impressionistic take, printed on a poster; a retro-futurist line drawing that resembled the blocky aesthetic of early Descendents’ LPs. This is archetypal stuff. At certain moments, especially when the band was at their quietest, one found oneself swept up in the way American Football managed to make that image move in real time.
And American Football did their level best to work in that aura. The band — now grown to a four-piece with the inclusion of Nate Kinsella on bass — played the entirety of their full-length and EP, and even included the most complete addition on their recent reissue, the cycling, pastoral “The 7’s”. Mike Kinsella’s voice occasionally rasped around the higher notes of certain melodies – a reminder that these are songs that were written and recorded by different, younger people. And indeed, it might be important to consider that we as listeners have changed around records like American Football whereas the artists making them have moved from, through, and past them. Our favorite records usually grow or re-shape with us, but Mike Kinsella and Chris Simpson and Blake Schwarzenbach have made new art because they already made American Football and EndSerenading and 24 Hour Revenge Therapy. And indeed, American Football’s full-length has now become the center around which modern emo has formed and re-formed. It’s the new foundation.
Yet these reunions are often a weird fit, especially when, in the case of a band like American Football — who never toured, barely played live, and has almost solely existed as an unbelievable archive that nearly everyone missed the first time around – these shows feel like alternative history. There’s an aura of make-believe, but it’s useful to keep in mind that that attempt at recapturing the past is almost solely for our benefit. The show was beyond sold out. The Webster Hall was utterly packed, to the point where I wondered if it had in fact been oversold. The band could easily have made this a weeklong residency. And as much as the four musicians on-stage seemed to get a kick out of being together again, and a baffled pleasure in seeing the overwhelming gladness of the audience, this is still a process whereby we ask these people not to tell us about themselves in 2014, but instead to go back through the motions of 1999. If emo is almost always about nostalgia, then evenings like this practically have to fight to the surface of all of that wistfulness. Indeed, it’s funny to consider that as Owen, Mike Kinsella has often wrote songs that pierce precisely that fog of memory. The songs of American Football, instead, seem to revel in it, or as on “Honestly”, play with the idea that we’re supposed to look back fondly.
It was the moments where American Football found room for the present in these songs that were most touching, and which, at their best, provided the first notion I’ve seen that there might be a reason to record an American Football album in 2014. Kinsella occasionally added lines to old songs, small phrases that reflected the richness that defines his work as Owen. The faint jazziness of certain passages of American Football was further underlined both by Steve Lamos gorgeous trumpet breaks – arguably the highlight of the shows, filling the crackling space of Webster Hall with an ever-so-slightly rusty plaintiveness – and by the sheer physicality of performance, the grooves of “You Know I Should Be Leaving Soon” (for instance) that much more elastic and playful on stage. One imagines that route for American Football – deeper into the June of 44 / Karate / Slint aesthetic of sinewy mood-rich post-rock – and suddenly wants to see a new photo of that house, upside down.
Later, the band played a more intimate, improvisational, and wryly informal show at the Saint Vitus bar in Brooklyn. Preceded once again by Into It. Over It., who, as always were exceptional (singer Evan Weiss seemed to relish crashing through his songs with the giddiness that comes with exhaustion), American Football seemed to play with some combination of irony and relief. Free of expectations (or at least hoping to be, as Mike Kinsella reminded the crowd that five bucks – the door charge for the second show — wasn’t that much money), Kinsella took the opportunity granted by long tuning breaks to finally have some fun with his circumstances. Songs frequently fell apart or threatened to. The band’s archly specific tunings were more wobbly and imperfect. Kinsella’s voice strained, bent, and occasionally cracked. The general assumption seemed to be that this one didn’t quite count. But you could squint and recognize that this was perhaps a bit more like the reality for American Football way-back-when: irreverent and freeform. The earlier set was a beautifully composed hour spent out on the lawn of American Football, a performance taken with and committed to the drama of a near-perfect album about being young. But American Football ended the evening – flirting with dawn – with something a bit closer to realism: a carefree, not uncharismatic rehearsal of youth itself, warts and all.