MANILA, Philippines - Ballpens weren’t allowed inside the new Metrowalk Tent for the very first performance of Stars in Manila last February 16. Security was unusually tight for what seemed like an ordinary evening of live music featuring one of the most popular names in the indie pop world, but I surrendered the pens I always carry in my right jeans pocket and entered the venue.
Make no mistake about it: in the world of indie pop, few bands rival the popularity of Stars. The Canadian 5-piece (a 6th member played with the band that evening) may not be superstars in the vein of Beyonce or U2, but they have a rabid following who swear by the intensity of their live shows and heart-wrenching appeal of their songwriting.
“We’re the biggest band nobody’s ever heard of,” vocalist Amy Millan was once quoted as saying. In many ways, that’s true. While Korean pop superstar Psy packed in the crowds at the SM Mall of Asia Arena on the other side of town, diehard loyalists of the sometimes melancholy, sometimes merry music of Stars made a beeline for the spanking new entertainment venue in Pasig City.
Local indie heroes Outerhope and Ciudad opened the show; and judging by the level of appreciative applause both bands got, it was clear they had their own fans. While stagehands set up for the main act, the speakers blared funky late '60s, early '70s tunes (like Lindy Stevens’ “Pennygold”) no doubt to get the crowd worked up further.
When the band finally made their way onstage from a holding area off to one side, the screams seemed to come from somewhere deep within, like a primitive, sincere expression of gratitude that a band that plays to a small, fastidious audience somehow beat the odds and landed in Manila, their guitars strapped on, drums set-up, microphones at attention, just ready to perform.
It seemed the appreciation was mutual. After the rousing opening song “Theory Of Relativity” which they quickly followed up with “Fixed,” vocalist Torquil Campbell cradled his microphone and professed to the crowd, “To be 19 years old, with dreams of becoming a musician, you think to yourself, maybe someday,” he paused, staring back out at a sea of expectant faces, “we could get to play in the Philippines.”
There was just the slightest tinge of skepticism — that perhaps the singer makes the same declaration to all exotic locales far away from their native Toronto — but somehow, the Canadian’s charm and inherent likability immediately endeared him to all but the most hard-edged cynic present that evening.
One by one, the band performed the songs most people have only heard in their ear- or headphones, shared from friend to friend or perhaps at hipster listening parties. Apart from a few cutting or witty prefaces from Torquil, there were hardly any pauses in between the songs — “A Song Is A Weapon,” “Ageless Beauty,” “The North,” and “We Don’t Want Your Body.”
“Any of you guys have family in Canada?” Torquil asked at one point. After a few shouted out in the affirmative, he said, “I guess we have family here.”
The band played more songs before one of the night’s many highlights: while Torquil brought out a melodica, he started on another preamble. “I understand Filipinos are romantic,” he said. “This is for that person you love. Sometimes you love them so much you want to kill them so you don’t have to love them anymore.”
They then segued into one of their most popular songs, “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead.” This was a personal favorite, and hearing them sing it live caused a rush of emotions that went beyond the usual concert high. For anyone who ever listened to the song while in a messed-up relationship, that moment was as real as it was going to get. I suspect much of the room felt it too; not a few people were wiping their eyes during and after the song.
Torquil’s rapport and harmonious blending with co-vocalist Amy Millan, who is a new mom after giving birth to her and bassist Evan Cranley’s daughter last year, is one of the key strengths of the band. After Torquil asked, “Did anyone bring their ghosts?” the two sang “Dead Hearts,” a poignant if a little too-agonizing song about lost loves. They followed up with the peppier “Elevator Love Letter,” another fan favorite. The other members — keyboardist Chris Seligman and sunglasses-sporting Pat McGee — played on and were clearly enjoying themselves.
By this time it became increasingly evident that the band was overwhelmed with the extraordinary attention lavished upon them by the Manila crowd. Every song was met with howls of approval, and every lyric was sung right back at them. By all accounts, Stars gigs are always fun, soul-stirring gatherings, but when Torquil proclaimed “Best night ever!” while shaking his head in awe and disbelief, we just had to take his word for it.
“Earlier, we made the executive decision to play the longest set ever for you guys,” he said. To which the reply was ear-splitting, tonsil-shattering shrieks of joy.
They finished the regular set with “Hold On When You Get Love,” “Take Me to the Riot,” and “Walls.” The usual tease didn’t last long; they came back out and performed, in succession, “My Favorite Book,” “Peak Hill,” “Set Yourself on Fire,” “One More Night,” “Calendar Girl,” and the finale, “The 400.”
Watch the music video of 'Your Ex-Lover is Dead' here:
“Thirteen years as a band and I can say that this is the most incredible night ever,” Torquil said. Even for the crowd, with the remarkable, almost palpable energy emanating from the room that evening, it was hard to dispute the statement. Cameras clicked nonstop, recorders were held up to preserve the moment for posterity, but most in the audience simply basked in the moment of what had turned out to be, at least for this writer, one of the best concerts in recent memory.
“Take care of each other,” he added. “Start a band. Give your s**t away. We’ll come back.”
On the way out, I was surprised to find that the ballpens I had deposited had disappeared and no one could tell me where they were. I wanted to be mad, but I was still coming down from the post-concert high and felt it wasn’t worth the aggravation.
Besides, it turned out I didn’t need to write anything down: all the show’s best moments are seared into memory and will probably last me until the next time Stars make their way back to these shores. - Rappler.com
Paul John Caña is the managing editor of Lifestyle Asia magazine and is a live music geek. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @pauljohncana