Gang of Youths brought their big sound to a small Chicago venue on Friday night, as the award-winning Australian rock band played an energetic set at Subterranean. Their excellent 2017 album, Go Farther in Lightness, established them as purveyors of grandiose, baroque indie rock. While their performance on Friday lacked the elaborate string arrangements that helped to distinguish the album, their performance maintained the album’s energy, earnestness, and ambition. Much in the way that the album ultimately revolves around lead singer David Le’aupepe’s poetic songwriting, their performance centered on his charisma. He proved to be a stellar live rock n’ roll frontman, working the crowd with zeal while never taking himself too seriously.
Friday was my first time at Subterranean, and I came away impressed. While the official capacity is 400 people, the narrowness of the second and third floor performance area makes it feel far smaller than similarly-sized venues. I opted for the third floor balcony, which put me almost directly above Le’aupepe. While it didn’t afford me a view of the entire band, it was a unique vantage point that still allowed me a clear view of the frontman, as well as guitarist Joji Malani.
Before Gang of Youths took the stage, however, the crowd was treated to a short set by Common Holly (AKA Brigitte Naggar). She differentiates herself through the use of a cellist instead of a conventional bassist, which gives her rhythm section a richness and uniqueness that stands out from other indie folk artists. While I enjoyed Naggar’s guitar playing, her vocals were difficult to hear over the instruments, and I’m curious to listen to some of her recorded work to get a better feel for her singing and songwriting.
Gang of Youths took the stage around 9:30 p.m. and opened with “Fear and Trembling,” the first song on Go Farther in Lightness. It’s an indie rock version of “Thunder Road,” opening with piano and imagery-laden lyrics.
Given the constraints of a live performance, they opened with Le’aupepe’s guitar and synths instead of piano. While I was a bit disappointed with the move, the song still acted as an effective opener, especially when the whole band came in halfway through. By the time Le’aupepe arrived at the chorus, half the crowd was singing along.
Le’aupepe has a Springsteen-esque urgency to his songwriting. Like the Boss, he packs his songs with so many vivid images that it feels like he’s running out of room to tell the story. These descriptions are built with a robust vocabulary that seems more at home in the reading section of the SAT than a rock song. Take, for example, verse 4 of “Fear and Trembling”:
There’s an omen now of frailty, hanging heavy from my face
A kind of existential loneliness that struts and frets a stage
And disappears unsaturated by the rhythms of the day
Still illuminating nothing but the love I turn away
And I still care about the present and the weight of circumstance
The the muckraking of cowards and a symphony of sass
While I have questions of mortality, the clear and present vast
They just yell the words “pretentious,” “with no clarity or class”
These elaborate verses, delivered perfectly on Friday night, created a unique give and take with the audience. During these moments, the audience would sit back and take in Le’aupepe’s message like a congregation listening to a sermon. Then, when the chorus would start, fans would sing along.
My use of religious analogy is intentional, as Gang of Youths’ songs regularly raise questions of faith. While their songs do not espouse doctrine or creed, they are animated the conviction that questions of faith are questions worth asking. This conviction is most clearly displayed on the song “Persevere,” the true story of a devout friend who lost a young child. Le’aupepe began by telling that story, then preceded to sing about being an nonbeliever who’s confronted with a friend’s steadfast faith in the wake of tragedy. It’s a brutally honest move that risks falling flat, particularly with live audiences who almost certainly bring a breath of religious backgrounds to the performance. The move works, much like it does for U2, because of Gang of Youths’ energy, sincerity, and, most importantly, talent.
Gang of Youths will return to Chicago at Lollapalooza in the fall, and I recommend making time for them if you’re planning to attend. Go Farther in Lightness is also available to stream and purchase (I recommend giving the 75-minute album a whirl on your next long run).