Fifteen miles north of downtown San Diego, the sleepy coastal town of Solana Beach has housed the Belly Up Tavern for over 40 years. Once a den of pool and brews for a flip-flop clad clientele whose world view rarely spanned beyond their next burrito, the club has done a fine job over the last three decades of making itself a requisite west coast performance destination for any artist worth their salt.
Unlike many clubs in Southern California who tend to make their name in niche genres, the Belly Up is even more impressive in the wide array of artists it attracts to it’s stage; rock, pop, alternative, jazz, blues, world music and of course a slew of upstart songwriters, indie groups and cover bands. It’s not uncommon to find acts such as Chris Isaak, Dick Dale, Afghan Whigs and Zap Mamma sharing slots within the same month, and then there’s The Horrors.
As a touring artist, there are nights when you hit the stage, play the show, fake encore, then drive through the night to the next city. Then there are nights when you hit the stage, sing into the deep red eyes of a giant suspended shark, get jumped by a female fan who cruelly only makes out for a few seconds before disappearing back into the crowd as if she just won a bet and finally you say to hell with it all, jump off the stage onto the shoulders of a man who spins you around the audience as you play one of your best known songs like a singing merry-go-round. Night one of The Horrors 2014 North American tour—somewhat surprisingly—followed the latter course of the above series of events.
When the house lights dimmed, the quick-attack slew of punk rock deep cuts that had been providing the back-drop to the cheap booze and expensive draft ales between sets was replaced with The Mamma’s and The Pappa’s ‘California Dreaming.’ Initially, you may think that this Topanga Canyon-spawned ode to the last breaths of 1960’s peace and love was an interesting counterbalance to what you know you’re about to hear from The Horrors, but actually it couldn’t be a more perfect introduction for the band. Taking the stage among artillery of neon laser lights that reminded me of my first school disco, the band members—silhouetted from behind a wall of light-diffusing dry ice—wasted no time as they revved into the pulsing first bars of ‘Chasing Shadows’, the opening track from their critically acclaimed fourth LP Luminous.
The band continued into ‘In And Out Of Sight’ before giving a grip of songs from their 2009 breakthrough Primary Colours an update thanks to their maturing synth-heavy Luminous sound—’Who Can Say’, ‘Sea Within A Sea’ and ’Scarlet Fields’—to the point that you’d almost be forgiven for thinking they were from the more recent album. Later in the set when one fan screamed for ‘Who Can Say’, singer Faris Badwan had to remind his inebriated friend that they’d already played it… Not that you could blame the guy for missing it.
Back to Luminous for ‘Sleepwalk’, it wasn’t until over halfway into the set that a song from the group’s 2011 critical success Skying made an appearance (‘Endless Blue’) which signalled the only negative of the evening: while The Horrors last U.S. tour focused predominantly on material from that record—and the band is quite possibly resting those songs for a bit—it would have been nice to have just a couple more to balance the set of both new and old material. Ping-ponging between albums for the last four songs of the regular set ‘Change Your Mind’ (Luminous), ‘Mirror’s Image’ (Primary Colours), ‘Still Life’ (Skying) electrified the room before a stunning rendition of ‘I See You’ (Luminous).
By this point, the surprisingly diverse audience (not just the gaggle of skinny emo vegans you may imagine) was in a frenzy, not the least of which was due to one female fan striding out from stage left to make out with Badwan before exiting stage right and falling back into the crowd. Everyone but the young lady in question seemed a little confused and it was only when the band retook the stage for their encore that Badwan proclaimed, “Glad security’s on top of things…” that the gravity of that little interlude became clear. Luminous’ hit single ‘So Now You Know’ set the stage for an extended ‘Moving Further Away’ where Badwan decided to tempt fate further and find a willing set of shoulders to be carried around the crowd as he screamed the song’s final coda.
Having seen the Horrors a couple of times previous to this evening’s festivities, I’d always admired that they would come out, give their best, then disappear back into the night with an almost stealth efficiency. Tonight was different in a good way: they’ve got a healthy selection of material and for the first time every member of the band seems comfortable in their own skin – even the mild mannered attempts of audience banter were as charming as they were refreshing. It’s a treat to see a group who obviously take so much pride in capitalising on a good record and turning it into a great show. It’s even better to watch them take their catalogue along for the ride to mature side by side as they develop their sound.
[Oh, and the red-eyed shark? It’s a life-size Great White that permanently hangs from the Belly Up’s rafters over the bar. Every artist who performs there reacts differently and an apt description of Badwan’s relationship with the cold beast would be ‘mezmerized.’]