On a cold Saturday evening–and for the second night in a row–California piano-rockers Jack’s Mannequin sold out the Blender Theater, a fairly small venue located in Midtown New York City. Though the band has routinely sold out much larger venues, Jack’s Mannequin frontman Andrew McMahon opted to book a smaller club tour in support of their latest album, desiring a more “intimate show”. Due to the small venue sizes, support acts Treaty of Paris and Fun were asked to perform stripped down acoustic sets on the tour, bringing with them only acoustic instruments so that the space could be reserved for Jack’s Mannequin‘s set that includes a full-size piano.
Signed to McMahon’s ATR’s Records, Chicago-based Treaty of Paris opened the evening. Completely unfamiliar with their material, my first exposure was their acoustic offering this evening. Vocalist Mike Chorvat carries the pop-rock act with impressive vocal offerings over surprisingly interesting guitars. Occasionally sounding similar to Chicago peers Fall Out Boy or The Academy Is…, the band has their own sound and enough charisma to stand on their own. Acoustic performances–devoid of distortion and overdramatics–are often a strong indication of an artist’s true ability; in this case, it appears Treaty of Paris is not to be thrown away amongst the growing number of untalented pop-rock acts overcrowding the airwaves. At the very least, it’s nice to hear a vocalist who understands pitch and tone.
Fun, a newly founded indie-pop band featuring The Format’s Nate Ruess, Anathallo’s Andrew Dost, and Steel Train’s Jack Antonoff, played next. Atonoff was absent due to his tour with Steel Train, so the band had a few touring members join them. One notable additon, Maggie Malyn, provided violin, guitar, and backing vocals throughout the set. Fun’s songs–none of which are out on record yet–sounded tremendous. Taking queues from where Dog Problems left off (and mixing in elements of Dost’s Anathallo), the songs are inviting, yet complex and intricately wrapped. Ruess was excellent, his vocals incredible and his stage presence captivating.
The band kept the crowd involved with singalong choruses to brand new songs and even a few covers. During the Interventions + Lullabies cut “The First Single (Cause a Scene)”, drums were replaced by using the floor as percussion; “She Doesn’t Get it” was treated very nicely acoustic. The key-changing and tempo-shifting “Come On Eileen” cover (Dexys Midnight Runners) was a fun treat that may be even better than the 1982 original. The clear musical ability of Fun should not be understated–the band knows how to write a song and knows equally well how to perform their material live.
Jack’s Mannequin kicked off their set with “Crashin'”, the first song from The Glass Passenger. “Spinning” followed before “The Mixed Tape”, the latter of which is the band’s biggest single and was the first song to get the entire crowd involved. The Bruce Springsteen-inspired “American Love” was next and sounded excellent–this should be the second single. To the best of my recollection the setlist:
The Mixed Tape
Holiday From Real
Annie Use Your Telescope
What Gets You Off
Hammers and Strings (A Lullaby)
Hey Hey Hey We’re All Gonna Die
Cavanaugh Park (Something Corporate cover)
I’m On Fire (Bruce Springsteen cover)
La La Lie
“Swim” was proceeded by a brief speech explaining the need to write a song that has to carry you through rough times. “Annie Use Your Telescope” is musically one of the more interesting songs on The Glass Passenger, but its lyrics aren’t up to the rest of the album. Live, the song shines for being somewhat unique to the rest of the set.
Staples like “Holiday from Real”, “Dark Blue”, and “I’m Ready” received more album-like performances than previous tours–intros, differently voiced lines, and other subtleties are mostly gone in favor of the style of the original studio recordings. After seeing the band nearly twenty times over the last three years, it’s a nice change of pace to hear the songs rendered differently live, even if different actually means the same.
During “Suicide Blonde” bassist Dr. J (Jon Sullivan) used that auto-tune effect for the “I brought my girl to keep me with it” hook, a subtlety I didn’t pick up on until hearing the song live. “Bruised”, possibly the best song from the band’s 2005 debut, is extremely bouncy and a great song live that shouldn’t ever leave their set.
McMahon prefaced the tour’s namesake, “Hammers and Strings (a Lullaby)”, with a story about the song being his goodbye to the piano he wrote North and toured Warped Tour with. Interestingly, he said the song wasn’t meant to be released and was only recorded because producer Jim Wirt overheard him playing it. “Caves”, a track written in varying perspectives involving his battle with leukemia, started with McMahon playing by himself. As the song climaxed the band joined in, erasing any doubt that the song would be the most powerful moment of the evening.
During what could be considered an encore, Jack’s Mannequin performed Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”. I saw the band”s first performance of the song which was fun but not impressive; this time the band nailed the cover, with guitarist Bobby Anderson performing the outro vocals near perfectly. Another cover, “Cavanaugh Park” from Something Corporate’s Leaving Through the Window, was equally impressive. Unlike the Springsteen cover, the crowd knew this one and was excited for a glimpse into McMahon’s past.
For just the second time ever, the band also performed the unreleased “Hey Hey Hey We’re All Gonna Die”, an outtake from The Glass Passenger. Like the released bsides, the song doesn’t really fit into the album but is still a strong track on its own. “La La Lie”, restored to its album version–not the “West Coast Winter” take from a year ago–closed the evening. The Simon and Garfunkel-inspired song about best friends was a new way to close a headlining show, as previously “MFEO”–absent this tour–was consistently the last song; members from each of the opening bands joined on stage with arms on each others’ shoulders celebrating the tour’s final stop.
By the end of the evening the show had to be immediately considered for the best show of 2008. The band’s performance was stellar, and McMahon captivates a crowd like few others. Throughout the show he tossed paper airplanes into the crowd (presumably setlists?); standing a foot taller than most of the crowd, I managed to grab one but passed it onto a very young girl whose face immediately lit up as if it was Christmas morning. And that’s the beauty of Jack’s Mannequin: it’s smart pop-rock that crosses age or gender boundaries with incredible musicmanship, lyrics, and live performances. Recent news has hinted that the band’s next tour will find them opening for The All-American Rejects, a disappointing piece of information because the band is just too good as a headlining act.