Bad Books may write songs about unrequited love, decapitations and the deaths of family members, but their show last night at the Bowery Ballroom was anything but morose. This became evident in the first 30 seconds, when the supergroup, led by indie singer-songwriter Kevin Devine and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, took the stage to—wait for it—“I Wanna Be A Hulkamaniac.” Yeah, you heard me: the lead single off of Hulk Hogan’s first (and thank God, only) rap album, a mid-90s artifact that most of the 20-something crowd, including myself, had never heard before in their life.
It was here, at this very venue, that Bad Books played their first live show as a band in 2010, so you can’t blame them for having some fun with their homecoming entrance. Judging from the cheers and laughter that erupted from the crowd, it’s clear that the audience welcomed the surprise. I certainly enjoyed the change of pace, after attending one too many shows in which the headliners take the stage silently, seriously, amidst a swarm of belching fog machines.
For the next hour and a half, the band tore through a generous set, featuring cuts from both its self-titled debut and last year’s II. Kicking off the affair with the one-two punch of “The After Party” and “No Reward,” the first two songs off the latter release, Devine, Hull and company amped up the hooks for maximum effect, thrashing around onstage and compelling even the glummest hipsters to shift into full-on pogo mode. Within the confines of the Ballroom, the surge of songs like “Please Move” and “How This All Ends” hit with more fanged force than ever.
When they weren’t rocking, Bad Books spent a lot of time fooling around with the audience. “We wanted to play you guys a new song—we’ve never played this before,” Hull whispered modestly into the microphone about a third of the way into the set. Immediately, eager fans flipped out their phones, clamoring to capture the moment on video. And then, with a sly smirk, he and Devine proceeded to dive right into a cover of Hootie And The Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You,” drawn out for hilarious, melodramatic effect.
The casual silliness of the affair also proved to be good for damage control, when, after messing up the opening of “Friendly Advice” and being forced to start over, Hull jovially thanked the crowd for bearing with him as he struggled to remember the words to the song. Moments like these transformed what might have been an otherwise typical homecoming show into what felt like a gathering of close friends. And it was: Brand New’s Jesse Lacey was in attendance, watching dutifully from offstage; several audience members also reported seeing Circa Survive’s Anthony Green.
The intimacy reached its zenith when the majority of the band left the stage, leaving Devine, Hull and guitarist/vocalist Robert McDowell alone to focus on the stripped-down material in the band’s catalog, including II’s closer, “Ambivalent Peaks.” With outside instrumentation down to a bare minimum, the radiant harmonic interplay between Devine and Hull came into sharp focus, lulling everyone in attendance into a stupor (at one point, during one of Hull’s goosebump-raising runs, I heard the man standing behind me declare, awestruck, “He sounds like a bearded angel!”)
And then the band silently slunk offstage, only to return a few moments later with three fan favorites: “It Never Stops,” “Baby Shoes” (apparently it’s about a murderous baby that dies only to come back from the grave with a vengeance—who knew?) and, best of all, “Pyotr,” a haunting ballad written after the band read the story of how Peter The Great, upon catching his wife with another man, had his head chopped off, put it in a glass case and forced her to stare at it for hours. And yet, despite the grisly backstory, it was the most affecting moment of the night, with nearly every person in the sold-out crowd faithfully murmuring the lyrics. And so, a mirthful show ended with four minutes of tense, tenderhearted reflection, the night having spanned everything from the Hulkster to the heart-wrenching. Not a bad homecoming at all.