Since we last caught Tennis playing the 197-capacity Mercury Lounge two years ago, Denver’s seafaring lovebird duo has given fans several new reasons to swoon. The two biggest of which are respectively named Cape Dory and Origins, freshman and sophomore albums that have volleyed Tennis’s reputation from blogosphere crushes to theater-filling hitmakers. Tennis headlined Manhattan’s sold-out Bowery Ballroom (which accommodates close to 600 people) on Saturday and, for good or ill, totally overshadowed its up-and-coming openers.
Brooklyn four-piece Air Waves opened first, hesitating near the stage exit for a minute as a sparse crowd gathered in observance of the show’s advertised 9 p.m. start time. “Sold out,” frontwoman Nicole Schneit smirked to the 60-odd-strong clutch of people clumped before the Bowery stage. In the evening’s early quiet it was easy to hear the errant chuckles at one front-row Joe’s snarky query, “Do you guys know any Angels And Airwaves?” They did not. But they did know easily digestible, four-piece jangle rock like professors of the stuff, laying down exuberant performances of “Force Fed” and “Knock Out” from 2010′s Dungeon Dots LP along with 10-or-so other songs, old and new. Some in the crowd took advantage of the Bowery’s momentary openness, dancing in broad, side-stepping circles across the floor while Air Waves chugged through jaunty three- and four-chord ditties throughout an energetic 45-minute set. In a smaller venue—or one where they’re topping the bill—Air Waves’ command of simple, crowd-pleasing rock arrangements could be the stuff that shakes ceiling tiles loose.
Next up was Hospitality, another Brooklyn quartet formed by core married duo Amber Papini, who sings and plays rhythm guitar (plus keyboard on tape), and Nathan Michel, who is credited as the band’s guitarist, drummer, keyboardist and producer, though he stuck to his axe onstage. I was super stoked for Hospitality; the band’s new self-titled LP came out a few weeks ago and was full of even more diverse and bubbly indie-pop arrangements than Tennis’s recent Origins. Unfortunately, the group’s unpretentious honesty (songs about the 20-something dilemmas of useless bachelor’s degrees, meeting new friends in a strange city, etc.) may have worked against it in front of a crowd ready for retro whimsy and boating romance.
Hospitality played through 90 percent of its LP in jumbled order during the 11-song set, plus a few new selections, but for some reason the band was never able to fully achieve the full-bodied ebullience of its record. Chock it up partly to lopsided sound mixing, partly to an increasingly drunk and disinterested crowd who was obviously there for Tennis and partly to Papini’s visibly disappointed reaction to this inhospitable reception, but the set lost speed when idle chatter could be heard just as clearly as Papini’s gorgeous vocals. Leading single and infectious song “Friends Of Friends,” which came toward the end of the set as opposed to in the triumphantly in-your-face No. 2 slot on the Hospitality LP, didn’t even pack the punch to turn a crowd who, for the most part, simply didn’t know the material. That’s not to say the set was bad by any stretch. “Right Profession” had a perfect balance of rabbit-punching guitar chords and fluttering vocal work that even got audience members head-banging briefly, and Michel’s giddy guitar playing throughout the night was consistently engaging, especially when set upon by an insatiable groove that got the guitarist performing some vivacious little kicks as he rocked back and forth to his wife’s right. As with Air Waves, Hospitality proved a talented band playing the wrong crowd.
So then, Tennis—the night’s sold-out headliner who could seemingly do no wrong—finally did no wrong. From 11 p.m. until just after midnight singer/keyboardist Alaina Moore and guitarist Patrick Riley (also a married couple) captained their four-piece touring band on a seamless voyage through 17 sock-hopping hits from Origins and last year’s nautical romance Cape Dory. The band’s doo-wop revisited sound was perfectly balanced (“I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but can you bring my vocals down just a tad?” Moore asked the techs two songs in), capably reshaping Patrick Carney’s just-lo-fi-enough studio production for a full house that only wanted to sing, dance and cuddle. The demure Moore twice left her post behind the keyboard for a little dance break that got the crowd swooning as she twisted and shouted in high-rising white jeans and a matching (vaguely see-through) blouse. Perpetually smiling and bobbing a Robert-Plant-lush blond mane, Moore’s dance moves were overkill; the crowd could not possibly love her any more. Riley couldn’t help but remind everyone that she was taken when he leaned in for a tender ear kiss right before the band shut down the set with a massive sing-along of “Marathon.” Airier than Air Waves, more hospitable than Hospitality, Tennis’s set was exactly what it needed to be to please an ever-growing crew of devoted followers.