Seeing Stars at The Troubadour in WeHo (6/23)

“We’re Stars and so are you,” Torquil Campbell announced at the conclusion of Wednesday night’s second of two sold out shows at the historic Troubadour in West Hollywood. The line came out forcefully, more like an order than a compliment (which is just kind of how he seems, demanding and a little crazy, like a younger Brian Wilson) and obviously not ad libbed. But very little was for Stars two-set evening (plus encore and opener, that was just the singer of Stars listening to iTunes and blowing bubbles while frequently apologizing for making us suffer). Even the sets were scripted with abnormal precision, with the first being the new album, The Five Ghosts, played in its entirety, and the second set consisting of fan voting winners.

The drama and surprises for me came not with what songs won the fan’s votes, but in finding out who the hell Stars actually are. I listened to Set Yourself On Fire a good amount when it was released, but never really got into In Our Bedroom After The War, and really just discovered their back catalog. But even with a slight yet existent knowledge of their music (relatively slight. The crowd was primarily enthusiasts, with it being nearly impossible to buy a ticket from even scalpers at the door, though I think everyone who waited it out got in), I felt like a stranger at a party where everyone knew eachother. Before the night, I couldn’t tell you how many members Stars had, what they looked like, really much of anything. I knew that Amy Millan works with Broken Social Scene, that Torquil Campbell hates Pitchfork, that they are boycotting Arizona, and that this was the last day of this fan appreciation/The Five Ghosts tour. Coming from that perspective, the evening was enjoyable from start to finish as I got a crash course in band chemistry and cashed in some preconceived notions of what musicians are supposed to look like. I’m pretty sure the rest of the crowd liked it even more.

First, let’s start with the balls it takes to make the opening act, billed as DJ Dead Child Star, yourself listening to a playlist. When I walked in The Troubadour, the audience was kind of still, enjoying some Gorillaz while bubbles gently floated above the crowd. But, somehow it worked. Campbell was a half gracious host/ half antagonistic comedian, playing the crowd against himself, but toward his band ultimately and allowing them to find even more relief and joy when Stars would take the stage. Clever trick from an obviously clever guy.

The band came on after a short break, appearing as a six piece, but really you only identify Stars as being the two voices, Campbell and Millan. But Evan Cranley and Chris Selegman actually write all of Stars’ music, with the singers contributing the lyrics. Guitarist Cranley also is Mr. Millan, not Campbell, who you would guess based on their stage interaction. But throughout the show, you could tell that the two guitar players shared something special, often sharing synchronized jumps and playful looks. And while Cranley and Selegman fit the rock ‘n’ roll look, the two singers break down the paradigm. They appear to be pushing 40, and look every year of it. I am not saying this to be mean, but most rockstars around that age try their hardest to maintain a youthful look. Campbell looks to be embracing his awkwardness while Millan is very mom-like, not looking too unlike Kathleen Turner in her mid-period between hottie and scary. This was intesting to me because it is weird how I expect singers to be young and pretty and am somewhat turned-off when they are not. It’s like you hear these sad lyrics from a band you like and you imagine it’s coming from someone successful who can get chicks, and then you find out they are just as awkward as you, well, it takes away a little bit of your hope.

But as they introduced the album and nailed the first three songs, I realized just how ludicrous and superficial this idea was. The band’s looks have nothing to do with the music and if they do for you, well, then its validating everyone from boy bands to Miley Cyrus. The raw emotion that began in “Dead Hearts”, with you actually believing that they were kids that they knew, opened up a new way to build drama when the crowd already knows the setlist. Pure theatrics. They posed for epic camera shots, brought their hands to the audience. As the night went on, the audience would be thrown roses and nearly Millan’s bra, which instead was just taped to an amp. The connection between band and audience was greater than any show in recent memory, with the band looking to connect rather than just perform.

Songs were introduced by track number and title, with an announcement even being made for when you had to flip sides. What was most surprising was how serious everyone took it. Hollywood is not the place you expect to hear analysis on pacing and theme in song breaks. People critiqued the album between sets, but the reaction was favorable, even if the band made it clear that they were never fucking playing this album whole again.

Highlights live were the same as on the album, “Wasted Daylight” playing delicately, with Millan really distinguishing herself, “I Died So I Can Haunt You” doing the same for Campbell, with the venue feeling like a part for the first time, and “He Dreams He’s Awake” packing all the drama that would be expected. If you didn’t like the album, you probably wouldn’t like the faithful versions the present in concert. But after their break, no matter what side of the fence you were on with the new album, you were happy to hear “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead”, Stars best song and a chance to see Campbell play the melodica, which you don’t see much outside of The New Pornographers and Man Man.

The crowd seemed to enjoy every number from this set, but the newer ones did seem more recognizable, with “Ageless Beauty” and “One More Night” being standouts.

And though the crowd expected an encore, the event added two things (besides more songs) to the evening that will stick with me. One was after the second best song Stars has, “The Night Starts Here”, you could see Millan adding a song, and as it turns out it was the evenings last song, “Set Yourself On Fire.” It was nice to see the band that has been so structured let loose and play something unintended. The other thing was near the end, when Torquil Campbell could no longer hold in the joy that the tour was taking a break, announcing like his antagonistic comedian that he gets to see his daughter. It was with genuine abandon, but didn’t feel differently than anything else he said, justifying any belief fans had placed in them or what they stand for. Though theatrical, at times too much so, Stars has their integrity and they don’t mind making stands. It shouldn’t really matter what level of success you have, if you can stand up straight, you can stand up for something.

Stars setlist:

Dead Hearts
Wasted Daylight
I Died So I Can Haunt You
We Don’t Want Your Body
He Dreams He’s Awake
The Passenger
The Last Song Ever Written
How Much More
Winter Bones
Your Ex-Lover Is Dead
Take Me To The Riot
Elevator Love Letter
On Peak Hill
Ageless Beauty
Look Up
One More Night

The Night Starts Here
What The Snowman Learned About Love
Set Yourself On Fire

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