Don’t Try to Grab This Bull by Its HornsDecember 14th, 2009
Fiery Furnaces – The Bowery Ballroom – December 12, 2009
It’s impossible to successfully sing along to a Fiery Furnaces show. Like foolishly climbing aboard an electric bull at a bar, no matter how well you think you can hold on, eventually, you will get thrown off. On Saturday at The Bowery Ballroom, I heard it happen to someone during a tempo-change curveball on “Charmaine Champagne,” an upbeat track from the band’s recent release, I’m Going Away. It’s a feat to keep up at all with the Fiery Furnaces’ lyrics—full of SAT words, obscure references and intricate storylines. Along with their wacky instrumentation and experimentation with musical styles (’70s smooth rock, ’60s psychedelic, angular art rock), these idiosyncrasies are what draw some people to the band and similarly alienate others.
Though focusing primarily on material from I’m Going Away, the Fiery Furnaces also worked renditions of older favorites from Widow City, Blueberry Boat, and Gallowsbird Bark into their set. As they played, brother and sister Matthew and Eleanor Friedburger barely looked at each other. Perhaps their effortless ability to navigate the music’s twists and turns can be attributed to some uncanny sibling telepathy. Matthew, on guitar and occasionally on backing vocals, sported a poker face for most of the show, even while pulling off complex guitar solos. The more expressive Eleanor stared intensely at the crowd while singing, emphatically gesturing to punctuate certain moments and enunciating those wordy lyrics with impressive accuracy.
But toward the end of the set, in the middle of an older song, Eleanor stepped away from the microphone and asked Matthew something. When he shrugged, she looked out into the crowd and asked, “Who’s the guy who requested this song? Maybe he can tell me the words to this next part.” While that person never came forward, somehow Eleanor summoned the lyrics. It was a tiny lapse in an otherwise seamless set. But it proved that if Fiery Furnaces can barely keep up with themselves, you shouldn’t even try. —Alena Kastin
Photos courtesy of Mina K